Category: Atonement/Propitiation

Atonement and the Japanese (Pt. 2)

[Please start with part 1 here]

In the previous post, I made some introductory remarks about the doctrine of atonement, the importance of getting it right and the difficulties in communicating the vital biblical truths about atonement to those who come from a very different cultural background to us. I would like to elaborate further in this post and go into some further detail.

The way we express atonement in Western evangelicalism along with the way we talk about sin (and the relationship between the two) seems heavily shaped by a Western legal framework we’ve inherited from Roman culture and Roman Christianity. Penal Substitutionary Atonement addresses the common notion of sins as a legal transgressions: offences against God’s law; crimes which must be punished. We break the law, disobey God’s commands and commit unrighteous actions and each one adds to the list of indictments that will lead to our eternal condemnation for our sins. Jesus perfectly obeyed the Law, embodied what it meant to be righteous in God’s sight and died in our place “the just for the unjust” (1 Pet 3:18). He “cancel[ed] the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col 2:14). And the Scriptures clearly testify that Christ’s death directly addressed the issue of our trespasses and transgressions against God and His commands (see for instance, Isaiah 53, Rom 4:25, Eph 1:7, Col 2:13,  Heb 9:15). There is no denying that this emphasis is biblical and vital to our understanding of atonement.  However, the proclivity some of us evangelicals have for focusing almost exclusively on the legal aspects of the atonement is probably still linked to Protestantism’s emergence out of the legal Roman cultural and religious traditions.


There is some evidence from church history that suggests this might be the case. In Eastern Orthodoxy, which had a different cultural milieu to Western Christianity and was less influenced by Roman culture, sin is thought of more as “falling short” of one’s divinely-intended human potential (suggested by the Greek hamartia, translated as sin in English, which was originally an archery term) and therefore the work of Christ was largely understood to be a restoring of humanity to their full potential (namely theosis, or participation in the divine nature). The Eastern omission of the penal element of atonement makes their view grossly defective from the perspective of an evangelical like myself, however it allows us to see how different aspects of sin and atonement might be emphasised in non-Western forms of Christianity.

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In expressing the atonement in a non-Christian religious climate and non-Western cultural environment like Japan, evangelicals should never be satisfied by an understanding like that of Eastern Orthodoxy that omits essential truths we know to be biblical. However, we should also not be satisfied by expressing Christ’s work in terms that are more apt at addressing a Catholic religious context or a Western cultural mindset. This means that while it is never acceptable to downplay or omit the legal aspect of the atonement, it may be necessary to appreciate other aspects of the atonement more deeply in a complementary way, in order to communicate the biblical truths effectively to people of different cultures.

In the Japanese evangelistic context, the word most commonly used to translate sin/hamartia is tsume. This has long caused difficulties for foreign evangelists and Japanese Christians when sharing the gospel, as the word is most commonly used for criminal acts and many Japanese are conscientious citizens who find it difficult to accept the notion that they have committed a “crime” against a God they have never known. While I believe that Japanese must accept the truth that they have violated God’s standards of righteousness (and acknowledge that many people in other societies find the notion that they are “sinners” or “transgressors” offensive!) – I have come to wonder if we must help them get to that point by presenting aspects of the atonement that are more relatable to the Japanese mindset as the first point of contact.


Missiologists, along with other students of Japanese culture, have identified the concept of wa  (和) as essential to Japanese culture. Wa is difficult to translate precisely, but it is in many ways analogous to harmony. Social conformity is a highly valued virtue in Japanese society, because it preserves the wa between people within small groups and the nation. Participation in community religious festivals is also largely driven by a commitment to social harmony, but naturally a sense of harmony with nature and the Shinto gods is also a feature of Japanese society and religion.

Relevant questions to ask at this point are: “Does the biblical presentation of Christ’s atoning work have something to say to the core Japanese values system?” and “Does the Japanese emphasis on wa have potential as an idea Christians can engage with in a biblically faithful way that will help Japanese understand the gospel?”

While I don’t think I’ve arrived at a fully-formed perspective on these questions, after some early thinking, my tentative answer is yes to both. In the remainder of this post, I’ll give a brief explanation as to why.

I suspect the biblical worldview and the Japanese worldview can intersect if the transgression of Adam and Eve is explained (at least partially) as a violation or disruption of the perfect harmony that existed in Creation prior to the fall. The everything of creation that God saw and declared to be good included the reality that absolute wa existed between Creator and his creatures. This understanding of creation is closely related to the biblical ideas of shalom as the peace available under God’s perfect rule and the Kingship of God over His creation (as presented, for example, as the starting point of the 2 Ways to Live gospel presentation). When humanity chose to “go their own way”, we became the original destroyers of divine harmony; we dishonoured God instead of giving Him the honour He deserved as our Great King and although we have attempted to create our own societies and live together independently of God – our wa is always a broken one, our peace always fragile and we are unable to restore the divine harmony we breached.

Death, disease, destruction, despair, frustration, fragility, fear and fighting are all reminders that we are not at harmony with the divine, that God’s anger is directed towards us due to the way we have dishonoured His name and rejected His rule. Hell is a place of eternal disharmony and discord, where God consigns us to feel the weight of our rejection of Him, our inability to repair the dishonour we have done Him and to experience an everlasting existence without hope of seeing our lives restored to a harmonious relationship with our Creator.

When Christ’s work of salvation is understood through the grand lenses of atonement (i.e. “at-one-ment” as described earlier) and reconciliation, I believe the reality of our severe disharmony with God is powerfully addressed at the cross. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:19-20, ESV)

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:7-10, ESV)

Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and second coming all work together to reconcile corrupt humanity and the fallen universe to God, His perfect rule, order, plan and blessing. The harmony that Japanese culture extols as the greatest value can only be realised in Christ. And the attempts of the Japanese to form harmonious societies independently of God and irrespective of the broken relationship between humanity and their rightful king, is part of their rebellion. Because I don’t think the death of Jesus can be explained without delving into issues of guilt and culpability, penalties and consequences, at this stage I think I would try to demonstrate how our violation of God’s created harmony is simultaneously disobedience to His rule and commands that made such a peace possible. The notion of sin as treason may work well in communicating this.

While I still have a fair bit of fine tuning to do (which I anticipate will come through further interaction with Japanese Christians, Japanese non-Christians and missionaries serving in Japan), I expect a gospel presentation like 2 Ways to Live can work quite well as a tool for communicating the good news to Jesus, so long as the wa aspect is adequately communicated throughout the presentation.

Do you have any experience communicating the truths of the gospel and Christ’s atoning work to people from non-Western cultures that lack a Catholic/Christian heritage? What have you found helpful or challenging as you seek to be faithful to the unchanging gospel, whilst being understandable to your audience?


Atonement and the Japanese (Pt. 1)

If you’ve done some exploring regarding the work of Christ on the cross, you’ll likely have come across several different “theories” of how to understand what we call the atonement. What you believe about the atonement; the words and images you use to describe it; and how you think it affects our relationship with God usually says a lot about where you sit on the theological spectrum. Correct views about Christ’s work of redemption are crucial to healthy Christian thought and spiritual development, while erroneous teachings about the atonement may be significant cause for concern about the biblical faithfulness of a person’s views on Christianity.

5862827861_28e4299524_z                                                                                                                                                 [2]

The understanding of atonement that I hold and consider to be vital to Christian understanding of the cross is commonly referred to as penal substitutionary atonement. “Penal” refers to Christ bearing the penalty of our sin upon the cross, the way a criminal might bear the just punishment for their crimes. It is inseparable from the idea that the wrath of God against human sin was poured out upon the crucified Christ and that this was necessary for sinners to be reconciled to God. “Substitutionary” communicates the idea that everything Christ endured on the cross was done for us and for our salvation: in other words, Jesus died in our place, the sinless Saviour representing sinners – as God executed judgement upon His Son as though it were us on the cross receiving our due for rebelling against Him. Atonement itself was said to have been invented by English Bible Translator William Tyndale to communicate in English the idea of God and humanity being “at one” again, as a result of the person and work of Christ.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement is fiercely defended in many evangelical circles and many theologians, pastors and church leaders are greatly troubled when differing aspects of the atonement are elevated to a position that takes precedence over the above understanding of Christ’s work. Some of the other proposed atonement paradigms include: Christus Victor (the atonement is about Christ’s triumph over the evil spiritual forces of the world); Moral Influence theory (Christ died as an example to humanity of what love and ethics we should strive for); and Ransom to Satan (Christ’s death was payment to Satan to “buy back” sinful humans, rather than a sacrifice that dealt with sin in the sight of God). I find the latter view completely unacceptable and regard the essence of the other two views as aspects of Christ’s death that need to be appreciated as elements of His work that are subordinate in importance to the penal substitutionary aspect.


A problem arises though when it comes to maintaining faithfulness to what one sincerely believes that the Scriptures teach and emphasise, and contextualising the gospel so that people from diverse backgrounds understand what Jesus did for them in ways that address the fundamental concerns of their culture and beliefs. I simultaneously recognise one particular view of the atonement as valid above all the other proposed models, yet at the same time I can see how our articulation of it predominantly addresses the Western mindset we’ve inherited from Roman civilisation and Roman Catholicism. In nations like Australia, the UK and the USA, the way I am used to expressing the atonement over and against the inherent legalism of Roman culture and Roman Christianity and the modernist heresies of liberal Christian groups is, I believe, the necessary way to communicate the biblical truths concerning Christ’s work on the Cross to Christians and non-Christians alike (whether its in the context of discipleship or evangelism).

But in thinking about how to communicate these truths in a very different culture, specifically Japanese culture, I’ve been forced to think carefully about how I can emphasise what the Bible emphasises and not concoct “new truths” to share with the Japanese, whilst at the same time not falling into the trap of delivering a pre-packaged, Westernised presentation of the gospel to people who have a very different cultural and religious starting point to the once Christianised societies of the Western world.

Francis Xavier – bringer of Catholicism to Japan

Let me spell out some of the obvious differences. The Greco-Roman cultural and philosophical values that have always been part of the Western mindset are not the same as the Far-Eastern, Confucian values that characterise societies like Japan. Despite coming to Japan via Jesuit missions in the 1600s, Roman Catholicism has never been the dominant religious force in Japanese society and in fact it was outlawed and brutally oppressed for many years – severely limiting its impact upon national life. As a natural result, while Protestantism “naturally” arose in European countries like Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Scotland and England, when people turned to Scripture as a higher authority than the papacy and the Church – Protestantism in Japan has never arisen as a response to Catholic teaching, cultural dominance and abuses of power. It has come from other parts of the world as a pre-packaged response to somewhere else’s ecclesiastical problems. And naturally, while Japan has been enormously influenced by the modern West in the last 150 years, it has not directly had cultural movements like the Renaissance and Enlightenment, which were arguably only possible in the Western-Christian context in which they occurred.

On one level, evangelical Protestantism and its understanding and articulation of the gospel is completely valid and even needed in relation to the Japanese context. For one, it’s goal is to be thoroughly biblical and therefore the discoveries it has made from the Word of God in relation to core principles of Christianity are universally applicable. They have something to say to every culture on Earth. Furthermore, they are legitimate because Catholicism is in Japan and chances are that what little the average Japanese man or woman knows about Christianity will come from Catholicism. Since Catholics are committed to promoting Roman dogma to the four corners of the globe, we must be ready to counter it by clarifying what the Bible teaches on a range of issues and our experience in the historical controversies within Western Christianity will offer us many of the tools for doing that. Western cults like JWs and Mormons are also present and promote their own corruptions of orthodox teaching on topics such as the atonement. The resources for dealing with these aberrant movements will also come from the Western experience.

But my concern is that in order to be faithful evangelicals in Japan, we must not simply recycle pre-packaged Western Protestant methods of communicating Jesus and articulating the faith, if they do not take seriously the fact that Japan is less like 16th century Catholic Germany or 21st century post-Christian Australia and perhaps more like the pagan frontiers of non-Roman Europe in the early centuries of the church. Our gospel will be the same, our basic understanding of the atonement will not change. But how we introduce, explain, illustrate and apply this core aspect of the gospel may need to look different to what we’re used to in our Western contexts.

I’ll share more about what I’ve been thinking in regards to this issue in the next post…

[1] Rumble Press “3D_Judges_Gavel” (CC BY 2.0) flickr

[2] Yu Tung Brian Chan “Peace!” (CC BY-NC 2.0) flickr.

[3] György Soponyai “St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City” (CC BY-NC 2.0) flickr.

[4] Billertl – “Statue of Saint Francis Xavier, at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, in Superior, Wisconsin” CC BY-SA 4.0 wikimedia commons


Crosstide Reflexions: Propitiation

Theological words can be used as jargon. We all know those times when someone busts out a word with too many syllables and assumes others know what it means. Or even worse, when someone uses an obscure scholastic term or a borrowed Latin phrase that they know others won’t understand to demonstrate their superior intellect. That’s these kind of words at their worst. But at their best, a carefully chosen theological term, if properly explained or widely understood, can be an incredibly effective means of communicating rich, deep and perhaps complex theological truth with a single word.

On that note, I wanted to share a few thoughts on what is probably my favourite single-word theological term: Propitiation. Some of our English Bibles use this word in the following passages:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom 3:21-26, ESV)

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2, ESV)

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.(1 John 4:9-10, ESV)   

Even just reading the above verses should convey the fact that this is a rich word, with a very special relevance to our understanding of the Cross.

The dictionary definition of propitiate is “to make (someone) favourably inclined; appease; conciliate.” The Greek word used in the NT, which is translated as “propitiation” is ἱλασμός (hilasmos) or ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion), which has the idea of placating or appeasing an offended party or expiating (a term which itself means making atonement or amends for wrongs committed).

Propitiation then is an expression of what was happening at the cross. When Christians say that Jesus’s death on the cross was an “atoning sacrifice” (as indeed the NIV chooses to translate the above Greek words in Rom 3:25, 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10), we are saying that his substitutionary death for our sins was both appeasing or placating the divine attitude of wrath towards our rebellion and reconciling us to God so we would instead experience His divine love and favour as children instead of enemies. My way of bringing these two aspects of propitiation together has been to express it as thus: Propitiation is the process by which Christ deals with God’s wrath against our sin (through His death on the cross) and invites divine favour to be shown in place of it.

This kind of idea is actually quite unpopular today, even among some who call themselves evangelical Christians. The substitutionary, wrath-bearing aspect of Christ’s atoning death has been dismissed as “cosmic child abuse” or a troubling placing of divine violence at the centre of our faith – depending on who you read. But propitiation remains central to the historic, biblical understanding of what Jesus did for us and how God Himself was the one who needed to be satisfied when it came to the problem of human sin.

Of course, my definition above could be misconstrued or misunderstood. Propitiation should not communicate the idea that “merciful Jesus” was doing us a favour by dealing with the “angry Father,” nor that God was primarily disposed to show us wrath, but Jesus ensured mercy triumphed instead. A proper, biblical understanding will always promote the truth that the Triune God wished to show mercy to His fallen creatures, in a way that would uphold His perfect righteousness and not lessen His righteous anger against human sin. The very fact that Paul teaches in Romans: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” demonstrates that God did this so that grace and mercy might be shown to many instead of wrath. That God (which we can understand both as referring to the Father representatively or the Trinity generally) sent Jesus to achieve this purpose is clearly reinforced in 1 John 4:10: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Mercy to those who believe in Christ was the Father’s goal all along.

And the end of the Romans passage cited above communicates why Christ had to die a death that specifically bore the punishment for our sins, in order for divine grace and mercy to be shown freely to us all: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

God showed his absolute, unmitigated abhorrence for sin by pouring out His wrath on Christ – the willing substitute who voluntarily endured the fullness of divine anger so that it would no longer play a factor in our relationship with God. This showed that He was just – sin would never go unpunished. But it’s great news for you and I, because He also became the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.

Jesus endures the wrath that you and I could never bear – whether we were to face it now or throughout an eternity of experiencing God’s judgement. We get the favour of a gracious God poured out abundantly on us instead in a new, restored, reconciled relationship. That’s propitiation. And it’s great news.

Crosstide – Reflecting on the Cross of Christ

A couple of years ago, I encouraged members of my church to join me in a season of reflection on the cross in the lead up to Good Friday. I like to call it “Crosstide” – which means “the season of (reflection on) the cross” (compare Christmastide/Yuletide and Eastertide in older English usage). My wife and I have decided to do it again this year, through a special focus in our Bible reading and using specific devotional material that looks at the crucifixion and redemptive work of Christ in more detail. We plan to do this for the 5 weeks or so leading up to Easter.


If, after my recent post that included my personal disinclination towards Lenten observance, this sounds to you like my attempt at an alternative – you wouldn’t be far from the truth. The difference in my mind is that our focus will simply be on the different aspects of the cross revealed in God’s Word and how our understanding of them affects our lives. Like our celebration of the 12 days of Christmas – Crosstide partly arises from our feeling that one day in a year is often not sufficient time to get the most out of deep reflection and celebration of a particular truth of the gospel. We know that some of our brothers and sisters don’t see the value in “special days” at all and we acknowledge and respect the validity of that approach, as per Romans 14:1-6 and Colossian 2:16. But since we will join many Christians around the world in celebrating Good Friday anyway, we feel that an extended period of intentional, specific meditation upon the wonders of the cross will enrich our Paschal (Easter) celebrations.

Rather than any special fasting, rituals or traditions, the whole period will be marked only by what we read and reflect on, along with appropriate personal prayer and perhaps singing or listening to some of the great songs penned about the atoning death of the Son of God, our Saviour. Our plan is to read through Romans, divided up into manageable chunks and read a short chapter each day individually or together from John Piper’s 50 Reasons Why Jesus came to Die. I also hope to revisit a book I worked through during the same period 2 years ago – CJ Mahaney’s Living the Cross Centered Life – a helpful guide to keeping the cross at the forefront of our minds in shaping how we live our daily lives.

50 reasonsLiving the Cross centered life

I will allow this season to shape some of what I post here in the coming weeks and I look forward to sharing some of our reflections on the Cross of Christ with you.

For now I’d love to hear from you – do you do anything special before or during Easter that helps you meaningfully focus on the glorious truths at the centre of the gospel? If you plan on reading anything in the lead up to Easter or over the long weekend that will help you reconnect with the amazingness of the death or resurrection of Christ, I’d also love to hear what’s on your reading list!

[1] Kris Williams ‘Weathering The Storm’ – Llanddwyn Island, Anglesey  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)