Symbols of the Atonement
One ordinary Sunday morning, I sat in my pew praying customary words of confession and hearing familiar words of assurance. My pastor announced, as he did every Sunday, “God assures us with these words of pardon . . .” But at that moment, the words surprised me. Immediately, I turned to my wife and whispered excitedly, “Pardon! That’s an image of the atonement!”
I had been studying notes outlining five images of the atonement: Christus Victor, ransom, penal substitution, sacrifice, and moral example. My professor, John Witvliet, had encouraged us to consider how we might balance these images in worship. That morning, I realized that the word pardon is a courtroom image (penal substitution). And I realized that we had been introducing our words of assurance with this image exclusively.
Since that day, I’ve been reflecting on how we might enrich and balance our confession through attention to other images of the atonement. How might they help us find vivid, concrete language for confessing sins? How might they focus and refresh our words of assurance? And how might a balance of these images in worship cultivate a richer imagination for how Jesus saves us?
Images of the Atonement
The atonement is how God makes us “at-one” with himself. It is concerned in particular with the work of Jesus and the reestablishment of the God-human relationship. More broadly, Christ’s atonement deals with the schemes of the devil, the consequences of sin, and the salvation of the whole creation.
In our understanding of atonement, we confess that Jesus saves us. But we have not always agreed on how this happens. Over the years, theologians have suggested, defended, and taught dozens of theories.
Theories, however, are not the only means of grasping atonement. The Scriptures offer images of the atonement. These images are not comprehensive or exclusive. They break down when pressed too far; they limit our vision if isolated from each other. But collectively they help us comprehend our salvation; they awaken our imagination and illumine the many features of Christ’s atonement.
Christus Victor: An Image from Warfare
One stirring image of the atonement in Scripture is Christus Victor, the King triumphant over his foes. This warlike image celebrates Jesus, who through his death and resurrection “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them . . .” (Col. 2:15). It pictures Jesus as a conquering hero over sin and death (“swallowed up in victory”) and inspires gratitude to God, who “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55-57).
This image is a reminder of the reality and power of evil forces in our world. These include spiritual forces, such as hopelessness or bitterness, and structural and institutional forces, such as discrimination or privilege. In their presence we feel powerless, defeated, and dismayed. Christus Victor calls to mind the power of death, which swallows our loved ones and our dreams.
Many of our hymns take up this imagery. “Lift High the Cross,” for example, invites us to follow our savior, “our King victorious, Jesus Christ, our head.” It encourages us to sing a song of triumph, “praise to the Crucified for victory!” Additionally, many of our Easter hymns celebrate Christ’s victory: “Alleluia, Christ is risen! Death at last has met defeat./See the ancient powers of evil in confusion and retreat” (“Alleluia! Alleluia!”).
There are many ways to use this image in confession and assurance. Our prayers might include the words “Almighty God, in our battle against sin we are often defeated. We are feeble in our efforts to confront racism in our hearts and community. We confess that spirits of accusation and condemnation pervade our church. . . .”
In assurance we can declare boldly, “Sin has met defeat!” Though we do not experience the fullness of Christ’s decisive victory, we acknowledge that it has begun. Along with our words of assurance, we might add, “Listen to these words of victory: God assures us of our triumph in Jesus. Know that the battle belongs to the Lord and be at peace.”
Ransom: An Image from an Abolitionist’s Journal
A second image common to Scripture is ransom: Jesus gave “his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45); “You were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). This image brings to mind the efforts of an abolitionist. By the worth of his life and cost of his sacrifice, Jesus sets us free from captivity to sin and slavery to the devil.
To be sure, the analogy breaks down: God did not pay the devil for our freedom. But the emphasis is on the cost of Jesus’ sacrifice and the need for our emancipation. We are enslaved to sin and “chained to disobedience,” in the words of the song “Perdón, Señor” (SNC 59). The devil allures us with deceitful pleasures; we struggle to free ourselves from bad habits and addictions.
This image has inspired some of the most vivid descriptions in our hymnody: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Your sunrise turned that night to day; I woke—the dungeon flamed with light! My chains fell off, your voice I knew; I rose, went out, and followed you” (“And Can It Be”); “He comes the prisoners to release, in Satan’s bondage held; the gates of brass before him burst, the iron fetters yield” (“Hark, the Glad Sound! The Savior Comes”).
It is easy to imagine creative and concrete possibilities for confession and assurance. We might pray, “Master, we confess that sin imprisons us. We are enslaved to habits of selfishness and wastefulness. We are addicted to pornography, abuse alcohol, and ensnared by online gambling. . . .”
In assurance we announce our freedom in Jesus Christ: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!” (John 8:36). We might introduce assurance by saying, “God assures us of our freedom with words from. . .” or “With the price of his blood, Christ has removed our chains.” In conclusion, we might add, “Thanks be to God, we are no longer enslaved to sin” or “Know that Christ has set you free and be at peace.”
Penal Substitution: An Image from a Courtroom
Perhaps the most familiar image of the atonement in worship is penal substitution, the substitution of Christ’s innocence and righteousness for our guilt and corruption. This image reminds us that Christ entrusted himself to God, the Judge, claimed the punishment for our guilt, and granted us his law-abiding life (1 Pet. 2:23-24). In Jesus, God pardons our guilt, removes the sentence, and declares us just.
This image also emphasizes that we, as sinners, are law-breakers and guilty of punishment. We do not love the Lord our God with all our heart or love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40). We worship idols, dishonor God’s name, neglect the Sabbath, kill our neighbors with our thoughts and words. Guilty, we deserve the wrath of God. We are unable to merit God’s favor or justify ourselves by anything we do.
This courtroom imagery is common in our hymns. “We Come, O Christ, to You” affirms that “in [Jesus] we face our Judge and Maker unafraid. Before the throne absolved we stand; your love has met your law’s demand.” In the hymn “Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding” we sing of Christ who “comes with pardon down from heaven.”
A prayer of confession can make great use of courtroom imagery: “Righteous Judge, we confess that we have disobeyed your law and offended your honor. We stand guilty in your presence, unloving, ungrateful, and intending in our hearts to disregard your law. We have ignored your just decrees, smearing the names of others, fudging the numbers on our tax returns, and envying our neighbor’s big-screen television.”
But following our confession we may confidently declare, “Hear God’s words of pardon: in Jesus Christ our guilt and punishment is taken away. Before the throne of God we stand innocent of all charges. This is the verdict: Jesus Christ has died for us!”
Sacrifice: An Image from Religious Ritual
A fourth image of the atonement we use regularly in worship is sacrifice, an image taken from religious rituals. This image seems foreign to our daily experience; the blood of sacrificed animals seems gruesome and inappropriate. It’s difficult to imagine how blood, even that of Jesus, saves us.
But it’s evident in Scripture that Christ’s blood does save us. God sent Jesus as “a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of his blood” (Rom. 3:25). “We have redemption through his blood” (Eph. 1:7). Scripture assures us that “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).
One way to regard this image biblically is to focus on the blood’s cleansing power. Like a bleach solution, sacrificial blood removes the stain of sin. It wipes away our dirty deeds and sets us apart for holy service. It cleanses our guilty conscience and empowers us to live in purity.
The hymn setting of Psalm 51, “God, Be Merciful to Me,” uses this imagery: “Wash me, make me pure within; cleanse, O cleanse me from my sin.” In “Just as I Am” we respond in faith, “to thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” And in the hymn “Not What My Hands Have Done” we confess reliance on the cleansing power of Christ’s blood: “No other work but yours, no other blood will do.”
This imagery especially helps us conceive of sin not as an abstract idea but as a spiritual reality with tangible consequences. We might pray, “Holy God, we cannot wash away the guilt on our hands nor the filth in our minds. Our consciences constantly accuse, our sins pollute our every deed. We have despoiled creation, vandalized cities, and defiled culture by our greed, envy, and callousness.”
We are assured of our holiness, however, in Christ’s blood. We may, therefore, introduce our words of assurance by saying, “Listen to words of the cleansing power of Christ’s blood . . .” or “We are purified and set apart by the blood of Christ.” To conclude we might add, “Know that your sins are washed away; may your spirit be at peace.”
Moral Example: An Image from Obedience School
Christ as moral example calls to mind pictures of obedience school: Christ is our model and teacher for holy living; in him we learn true obedience, selflessness in service, humility, and compassion (Phil. 2:1-11; 1 Pet. 2:21). Under the influence of Jesus and his Spirit, we follow as apprentices, learning the ways of salvation and discovering new patterns of grace. This image implies that salvation involves our active participation through Christ’s power and influence (Phil 2:12-13).
Taken alone, Christ’s moral example might encourage a kind of “works righteousness,” as if all we need for salvation is a mentor and the willingness to devote ourselves to study. But taken with the other images, this image witnesses to the saving influence of Christ’s life and the reality that Christ’s atonement is not merely abstract but practical: We actually learn to turn away from sin and turn toward God! Moreover, the moral example of Christ sheds light on the great need for Christ’s influence. Apart from Christ, we follow our own paths, do what is “best in our own eyes,” and look to self-help and human institutions for our salvation.
Looking to the example of Christ’s death in the hymn “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” we sing, “As thou hast died for me, O may my love to thee pure, warm, and changeless be, a living fire!” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” proclaims a similar line, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” And “Come and Stand Amazed” points clearly to the example of Christ: “Light of life, dispel my darkness, let your frailty strengthen me; let your meekness give me boldness, let your burden set me free; let your sadness give me gladness, let your death be life for me.”
When we pray our corporate confessions we might admit our failures to follow: “Great Shepherd, we all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way. We conform to our peers, obey our ungodly desires, and ignore your will and work around us. We look to Hollywood for models, professional sports for heroes, and corporate executives for mentors . . . ”
The image of Christ’s moral example, in turn, offers us great news in Jesus: God has not abandoned us but has given us a guide in Jesus Christ! Our words of assurance, then, can emphasize the grace and promise of Christ’s example: “Listen to this assurance of Christ’s example and mentoring: our Good Shepherd promises to search for us, find us and lead us. God has shown us what is good and leads us by his Spirit.” After announcing words of assurance we might add, “Rest assured in Christ’s power and influence; he will lead you in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
As we reflect on these images of the atonement and search for references in the Bible and in our hymns, we may come across additional images. One that I’ve noticed often is Christ as physician: Jesus diagnoses the symptoms of sin, prescribes remedies, and cures the infection and injuries of evil. All of these images help us grasp the totality of our salvation, enabling us to realize the reality of our sin and comprehend the magnitude of Christ’s work. Our services of confession and assurance are prime opportunities to experience these realities in prayer and song. As we incorporate these images in our worship, I believe that we will find great joy and renewal in our planning and lead our congregations in deeper worship of our Savior.
Sample Services of Confession and Assurance
Note: Many of these prayers and litanies are from The Worship Sourcebook, available from www.faithaliveresources.org.
Service 1: Christus Victor
Call to Confession: Romans 5:8; Colossians 1:13-14
Prayer of Confession: The Worship Sourcebook, 2.2.39
Assurance of Victory: Revelation 5:5, 9-10
Hymn of Victory: “Lift High the Cross” CH 450, PH 371, PsH 373, SFL 171, SWM 243, TH 263, WR 287
Service 2: Ransom
Call to Confession: Psalm 130:1-4, 7-8
Prayer of Confession: “Perdón, Señor / Forgive Us, Lord” SNC 59, SWM 154
Assurance of Freedom: 1 Peter 1:18-19; Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 34
Hymn of Freedom: “For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free” SNC 66
Service 3: Penal Substitution
Call to Confession: Romans 5:8; Hebrews 4:16
Prayer of Confession: The Worship Sourcebook 2.2.15
Assurance of Pardon: 1 Timothy 1:15; 1 Peter 2:24
Hymn of Assurance: “Man of Sorrows—What a Name” CH 311, PsH 482, TH 246, WR 301
Service 4: Sacrifice
Call to Confession: Isaiah 1:18
Prayer of Confession
Sung Refrain, “Create in Me a Clean Heart” SFL 41, SNC 49, SWM 153, WR 378
Assurance of Holiness: Ezekiel 36:25-26
Hymn of Assurance: “Nothing but the Blood” CH 337, TH 307
Service 5: Example
Call to Confession: 1 John 2:3-6
Prayer of Confession: “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” CH 539, PH 383, PsH 262, TH 528, WR 419
Assurance of Pardon: 1 Peter 2:21-24
Response of Gratitude: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” CH 321/324, PH 100/101, PsH 384, SFL 166, TH 252, WR 261
To explore more Scripture passages and hymns with atonement images go to this article on the web (www.reformedworship.org) for additional material on this topic by Paul Ryan.
A Sampling of Hymns on Atonement Themes
“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” PH 5, PsH 341, TH 193, TWC 167, WR 232
“Lift High the Cross” CH 450, PH 371, PsH 373, SFL 171, SWM 243, TH 263, WR 287
“Ride On, Ride On in Majesty” PsH 382, TH 237, WR 268
“Alleluia! Alleluia! Give Thanks” CH 359, PH 106, PsH 402, SFL 173, SWM 129, WR 291
“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” CH 151, PH 259/260, PsH 469, TH 92, WR 507
“And Can It Be” CH 347, PsH 267, TH 455, WR 366
“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” Stuttgart: PsH 329, SFL 122 Hyfrydol: CH 244, PH 2, SWM 83, TH 196, WR 153
“Hark, the Glad Sound! The Savior Comes” PsH 335
“No Weight of Gold or Silver” PsH 374
“When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land” PsH 476, PH 334, SFL 103, SWM 71, WR 618
“We Come, O Christ, to You” PsH 238, TH 181, WR 110
“Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding” PsH 332
“The King of Glory Comes” PsH 370, SFL 156, TH 240, WR 159
“Alleluia, Alleluia! Give Thanks” CH 359, PH 106, PsH 402, SFL 173, SWM 129, WR 291
“God, Be Merciful to Me” PsH 255, TH 486
“Not What My Hands Have Done” PsH 260, TH 461
“Just as I Am, Without One Plea” CH 488, PH 370, PsH 263, SWM 156, TH 501, WR 354
“Go to Dark Gethsemane” PH 97, PsH 381, WR 272
“The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” CH 334, PsH 552
“My Faith Looks Up to Thee” CH 539, PH 383, PsH 262, TH 528, WR 419
“May the Mind of Christ My Savior” CH 568, PsH 291, SFL 72, TH 644, WR 464
“Come and Stand Amazed, You People” (stanza 3) PsH 338:3
“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” CH 321/324, PH 100/101, PsH 384, SFL 166, TH 252, WR 261
“Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love” (refrain, stanza 1) PH 367, PsH 601, SFL 251, SWM 249, WR 273
“I Will Sing of My Redeemer” CH 309, PsH 479
“Praise the Savior Now and Ever” PsH 400, TH 243
“O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” CH 21, WR 96
Planning with an Image in Mind
One way of planning the service of confession and assurance is to keep in mind an image of the atonement. The following five images can be a catalyst for our words of confession and a means by which we experience the assurance of salvation.
Included is a brief explanation of the images and words that might direct a prayer of confession, and a possible title for the words of assurance that resonate with the image.
- Theme: Jesus Christ defeated Satan and the power of death.
- Words of Confession: We feel defeated in our struggle against sin and the powers of darkness . . .
- Title: Assurance of Victory
- Theme: When Christ died on the cross his death paid the debt of our accumulated sins and freed us from the slavery and prison of sin.
- Words of Confession: Our sin imprisons us, we are chained to disobedience, and there is no end to our sinning . . .
- Title: Assurance of Freedom
- Theme: Jesus, though innocent, was found guilty; we who were guilty are found innocent.
- Words of Confession: Our sins are a burden and our guilt is too heavy to bear . . .
- Title: Assurance of Pardon
- Theme: The blood of Christ washes away all our sins and makes us holy.
- Words of Confession: Our sins have made us dirty, filthy . . .
- Title: Assurance of Holiness
- Theme: Christ’s life and death was an example of love and self-sacrifice for us to follow. Though this image captures an aspect of Christ’s saving work, alone it can lead to moralizing. Use this image to consider words of confession and to shape the response to grace. In addition, we ought to provide the promise of God’s initiative and faithfulness to save us and lead us in Christ’s example (e.g. Phil 1:6; Hebrews 13:20-21; Jude 24-25).
- Words of Confession: We have followed the example of the world and turned from your ways . . .
- Title: Assurance of Faithfulness
Sample Service of Confession and Assurance (Example and Substitution)
Call to Confession: Hebrews 12:1-2
Sung Prayer of Confession: “My Jesus, I Love Thee” (stanza 1)
Prayer of Confession
Almighty and loving God,
in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ,
the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
we confess the sin that so easily clings
and the foolishness that accompanies our way.
We have been slow to love our neighbor,
inactive in the ways of justice and truth,
and have displayed little ambition for your glory and kingdom.
We have preferred comfort and ease,
self-improvement, and private satisfaction,
acquainting ourselves with the pleasures of this world
rather than the sufferings of your Son.
Forgive us, we pray, for what we have left undone,
restore us to the path of righteousness,
and grant us the wisdom and strength
to follow in the steps of Jesus.
By your Spirit quicken our minds,
ready our hands, and rouse our passions
to lay aside our selfish ways
and run the race you have set before us.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Sung Prayer of Confession: “My Jesus, I Love Thee” (stanza 2) CH 79, PsH 557, TH 648, WR 468
Words of Assurance: 1 Peter 2:24a
“[Jesus] himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross,
so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.