Every believer has some theology of the atonement.
Faith, after all, is trust in a crucified Savior, and without some understanding, such faith is impossible. Faith knows from the beginning who died on the cross, and it knows, too, why he died. He died for our sins.
But faith can never be content with such elementary knowledge. It wants to live its whole life at the foot of the cross, seeking with every passing day to understand it better.
It Was God’s Love
The first thing to understand is that it was the love of God that provided the atonement. Evangelicals are often accused of teaching the very opposite: that Christ by dying persuaded an angry, vengeful deity to love the human race. It would be hard to name any evangelical who ever taught anything of the kind, and it is certainly not what the Bible teaches.
This is one of the great paradoxes of the Bible. God’s love for the church was not, like his love for his Son, a necessity of his nature. It was spontaneous and free. Yet God never existed without loving us, and it was this love that prompted him, the offended partner, to take the initiative in healing the relationship broken by sin; and not only to take the initiative, but to bear the whole cost.
Special Emphasis on the Father
But not only does the New Testament trace our salvation back to the love of God. It lays special emphasis on the love of God the Father. This does not detract in any way from the love of the Son who, says Paul, “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians [2:20]). But in so many of the key passages, it is the Father’s love that stands out. It is there clearly in John [3:16], and no less clearly in1 John [4:10], where the apostle declares that the real nature of love can be seen only in the Father’s sending the Son to be the sacrifice for our sins.
Nor is it a matter of the Father simply initiating the mission of the Son and then standing as a shadowy figure in the background. It was the Father who delivered up his own Son (Romans [8:32]), just as it was God who made “the one who knew no sin” to be “sin” for us (2 Corinthians [5:21]). The language of the New Testament points consistently to a priesthood of God the Father. It was the Father who brought his Son to the altar.