The Direction of Atonement in Luther’s Theology

When it comes to atonement theologies people often break them up into classic, satisfaction, and subjective categories. However it might be better to classify atonement theories according to whom the atonement is directed towards. For instance, Patristic atonement theories tend to say that Christ’s work aims at achieving something in regard to the “powers.” Anselmian theories tend to have a God-ward orientation. God is the one who is “satisfied” or whose justice is met. Finally, Abelardian theories tend to (primarily) argue that atonement does something primarily to us human beings. So we might want to ask of Luther – where is atonement directed?

The following passage gives us some insight:

For, by Himself to overcome the world’s sin, death, and the curse, and God’s wrath, this is not the work of any created being, but of almighty God. Therefore He who of Himself overcame these must actually in his nature be God. For against these so mighty powers, sin, death, and the curse, which of themselves have dominion in the world and in all creation, another and a higher power must appear, which can be none other than God. To destroy sin, to smite death, to take away the curse by Himself, to bestow righteousness, bring life to light, and give the blessing: to annihilate the former and to create the latter: this is the work of God’s omnipotence alone. But when the Scripture ascribes to Christ all this, then is he Himself the Life, and Righteousness, and Blessing – that is in his nature and His essence He is God…. When therefore we teach that men are justified through Christ, and Christ is the conqueror of sin, death, and the everlasting curse, then at the same time we testify that He is in his nature God. – Commentary on Galatians 3:13

Christ Defeats Death

There are a couple things to note from this passage:

  • The Presence of “Powers” – For Luther these powers are sin, death, and the curse. Much like classic theories, the problem is our bondage to these powers.
  • The Importance of Incarnation for Atonement – Most Patristic theologians believed that atonement started the moment Christ became incarnate. (See Irenaeus and T.F. Torrance’s appropriation of his theology.) Its interesting to note that for Luther atonement depends quite simply upon the battle waged by the divine nature against the powers. This is expressed very clearly when Luther says that “a higher power must appear, which can be none other than God….” i.e. for Christ to accomplish the victory he must be in his very nature God.
  • Victory not Payment – Again this is very clear, the powers have to be defeated. We are under bondage to the powers. However quite unlike the classical theories, the powers aren’t demonic, they are sin, death, and the curse (and elsewhere the Law).

From this passage alone it seems as though Luther doesn’t favor a “God-ward” atonement, rather it is a version of atonement aimed at achieving something in regard to the powers.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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