The following article was taken from Chapter 1, footnote 16 of our book “One God & One Lord”
FAQ: If Jesus is a man then how can a man atone for the sins of mankind?
Thank you for asking this question.
It is common for Trinitarians to argue that Christ must be God because “a man could not atone for the sins of mankind.” Theologians through the ages have varied greatly in their opinions of exactly how Christ could accomplish redemption for fallen man, and these theological musings can be found in any good theological dictionary under the heading of “Atonement.”
However, a standard argument goes something like this: “Mankind has sinned against an infinite God, and therefore the sin is infinitely great. It takes an infinite being to atone for infinite sin, and the only infinite being is God. Therefore, since Christ atoned for sin, Christ must be God.” This argument, which seems reasonable to some people, is man-made, and nothing like it can be found in Scripture. What can be found in Scripture is simple and straightforward: “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19).
There is not a single verse anywhere in Scripture that hints in any way that “God” was a sacrifice for sin. “The Church Fathers” tried to explain in great detail how Christ could atone for the sins of mankind, and offered many different theories as to how atonement could be accomplished. Origen, Augustine, and others believed that Christ was a payment made by God to Satan. Others taught that Christ was not a substitute for man, but rather a representative of man, and somehow the effect of his sufferings and resurrection extend to all mankind.
In the Middle Ages, Anselm taught that mankind’s sin offended God, and that Christ’s redemption was an act of “satisfaction,” to appease God. Abelard explained Christ’s atonement in terms of love and the response of love elicited from the sinner due to Christ’s example. The list of man’s theories about exactly how our atonement was accomplished is long, and entire books have been written on the subject.
The reason for the varying theories is that the New Testament does not set forth a “theory of atonement,” it just states the facts of the case, i.e., that Christ’s death paid for sin. Scripture makes many and varied references to the atoning work of Christ. Christ is called a “sacrifice” (Eph. 5:2; Heb. 9:26), a “sin offering” (Isa. 53:10; 2 Cor. 5:21 [NIV alternate reading]), a “ransom” (Matt. 20:28; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 9:15) and an “atoning sacrifice” (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10).
We do not see the need or reason to build a “theory of atonement” when none is offered in the Word of God. The words of the Word are sufficient. As far as the subject of this article is concerned, the most important conclusion that can be drawn from what is revealed in the Word of God is that it is unbiblical to assert that Christ had to be God to pay for the sins of mankind when the Bible explicitly says that payment for sin came “by man.” See also Chapters 16 and 17 of our book One God & One Lord.