Sin and Atonement: A Christian Perspective

By Father Philip C. Jacobs


In this season in which Jews focus on sin and atonement, we include an article by Ann Moline, a Jewish writer, and by Father Philip Jacobs, an Episcopal priest, to help our interfaith readers understand the differences between the Jewish and Christian views of sin and atonement.

In the Christian Church’s understanding, sin is deliberate, conscious disobedience to the will of God.

Disobedience is a function of human will, a moral problem. Sin is not “natural,” that is to say it is not built into us in Creation, it is not a part of some “animal nature,” and sin does not naturally evolve into goodness. However, sin is made possible by one feature of our Creation, the gift of Free Will. We are not programmed into righteousness. We are given the choice to be obedient or not.

The issue of choice is illustrated in the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. The story of the Garden of Eden, which is in no way historical, nonetheless contains profound truth. Human beings find temptation attractive and selfish pursuits more enjoyable, in the short term, than obedience. This tendency is what the Church calls “original sin,” and which it sees as a turning away from God’s original design for us. The doctrine that original sin is rooted in the Fall, as described in Genesis, is maintained because the disruption which human disobedience causes in God’s plan for Creation is first detailed there. The harmony of Creation is disrupted and human sin creates alienation between the humans themselves, between them and the created order, and between them and God. The tragic consequence of human sin is separation.

Scripture, the Tradition of the Church, and human reason are among the tools given to us for making moral decisions. Frequently, the ascertainment of God’s will for an individual, with the guidance of these tools, is made in the encounter of prayer.

Because of our tendency toward selfishness and disobedience, original sin, we need help to make what is broken whole. Because sin is disobedience to the will of God, ultimately our greatest separation exists in our relationship with God. Indeed, as we were made for union with God, without it we can find neither happiness, nor peace. For Christians, this reconciliation is provided by the Atonement.

The word “atonement,” may have been coined by the sixteenth century English Bible translator, William Tyndale, to represent a Greek word in two of St. Paul’s letters meaning “the reconciliation of two who have been separated.” Literally, “atonement” means “at-one-ment.” Any other definition is inadequate or damaging to the understanding of this central teaching of the Christian faith. For Christians, “at-one-ment” is achieved by and through Jesus Christ, not only through what happened to Him, but by virtue of who He is.

Sin had fractured the relationship between humanity and God. The difficulty in achieving oneness with God through the Law had been reflected in the Prophets’ promise of a “New Covenant,” a new way of relating to God. It is the Church’s understanding that this new way was provided in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the child of Mary and the Son of God, the uniting of the two natures, human and Divine, into one person. Thus, Jesus could reveal God to the world in human terms, while enjoying all the attributes of full humanity, including Free Will. His glory is in the perfection of his obedience to God.

The death of the Sinless One on the Cross, in the view of people to whom animal sacrifice as a religious rite was customary, made Jesus the ultimate “Passover Lamb.” Particularly, Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s messianic prophecies of the “Suffering Servant:” “…He was wounded for our transgressions… upon Him was the punishment that made us whole.”

To those who were familiar with the language of ritual sacrifice, Jesus’ offering of Himself removed the stain of sin and the consequent separation in a way that no animal sacrifice or struggle with the Law could do. In another sense, Jesus is often described as the “keystone in the arch,” in the bridge that links humans with God, by virtue of His very Person: the human and Divine natures united. Of course, our cooperation is required. However, it is not merely by trying to follow teachings of Jesus, as important as they are, as one might try to follow the Law, but by focusing our attention on who Jesus is and then on what He has done for us, that we can hope to be united with Christ. Once again, it is with God’s help, the grace of the Holy Spirit, mediated through the Church, that we may be made one with Christ, which is to be “at one” with God.


About Father Philip C. Jacobs

Father Philip C. Jacobs is Rector, Trinity Episcopal Church, Canton, Mass., and a member of the Massachusetts Interfaith Alliance Steering Committee, 2000.