Chapter 24 – Ephesians Atonement Passages

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

Ephesians 1:7 “In him we have redemption [apolytrōsin] through his blood, the forgiveness [aphesin] of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace”. ESV, excluding bracketed words

The word “redemption” is the Greek word “apolytrōsin”, which means “to release, to free from”. This is how that word is used in Hebrews 11:35, “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release…” Yes, it can be used in a commercial sense where a buyer frees the purchase from its prior owner, but the action of the word points to being released, and not the transaction itself.

The word “forgiveness” is the Greek word “aphesin”, which means “sent away, released”. It can mean forgiveness in the sense of being released from an obligation, but the act of being released comes first, and the forgiveness would be a byproduct of that release.

Based on the above, an alternate translation of Ephesians 1:7 would be, “In whom we have freedom through his blood, the release/letting go/deliverance of sins, according to the riches of his grace.” The middle phrase “the release of sins” is simply a restatement of the opening phrase, “In whom we have freedom through his blood”. This again demonstrates that the blood of Christ is not a payment or an external cloak for simply covering sin, but is a blood covenant which requires stopping the sin.

Ephesians 2:1-3 “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” ESV

PSA proponents may bring up this passage, claiming that being “dead in the trespasses and sins” affirms that there was no ability whatsoever to refrain from sinning. However, this not only denies reality, where even non-Christians can make choices between right and wrong, but also ignores the metaphorical use of the word “dead”. A good example of this metaphor is the parable of the Prodigal Son, where the father said, “my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24). “Dead” can used as a metaphor, not a literal reality, and the same applies to those who are lost in sin and are dead to righteousness. Hypocritically, the same ones who want to take being dead to sin literally in Ephesians 2:1 have no problem understanding death in Romans 6:11 as being metaphorical because this passage does not fit in their flawed systematic and it is therefore just ignored. “You also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” ESV. If being dead in sin is literal in Ephesians 2:1, then the obvious result of being literally “dead to sin” in Romans 6:11 would require impeccability!

Another problem is the phrase, “by nature children of wrath” in Ephesians 2:3. “Nature” here is the Greek word “physei” which can include a person’s lineage or upbringing, as used in “Jews by nature” in Galatians 2:15. Furthermore, the word “wrath” is “orgēs”, which primarily means “passions”, which can include anger or wrath. This is not God’s passion or wrath (though this is true in other contexts), but in this text it is about the individuals who before following Christ were living in the sinful passions, including anger, as they had been raised this way from childhood.

The reason to bring up this passage in Ephesians 2:1-3 is because this was used as part of the reasoning that birthed PSA in the early 1500s; the claim is that humans are so totally depraved that they are by nature, by design, incapable of turning from sin and cannot choose righteous living, which if true would logically require someone else to intervene and do it in our place. While it is true that humans are depraved to various degrees, we consistently read in the Bible that God pleads with people to leave their sinful ways to follow His ways. He considers us capable and responsible for our choices. We do need a Savior, but this is not the same as saying we need a substitute, someone else to be right for us, so we do not have that obligation (see Hebrews 5:9).  (Penal Substitution Atonement uses a substitute for both our righteousness as well as our punishment.)

Ephesians 2:4-5 “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us [both Jews and Gentiles] alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” ESV, excluding bracketed statement

This is another of the many anti-PSA passages. We read that God is “rich in mercy” and has “great love”, yet PSA portrays God as rich in retribution and who has a need for expressing his wrath. PSA presents the Father as wrathful and the Son as merciful, loving, yet it was God, the Father, who “made us alive together with Christ.” It was not Christ who was the initiator, the primary source, of God favoring us with salvation. Yes, Christ suffered and died for our sake, but He was not sadistic in desiring this method, as he pleaded, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” ESV Luke 22:42. Jesus’ loyalty was rewarded because “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” ESV Philippians 2:8-9.

The background of all of this was the Father’s desire and plan for us to be reconciled to Him. It had nothing to do with God needing Jesus to help Him become reconciled to mankind. Jesus died, in part, to save us from our sin, not from God. The mission of Jesus is restorative and reconciliational. Jesus was not God’s vindictive, retributive lightening rod to help his Father get over His infinite wrath. If Jesus saves us from God, then he is saving us from a violent Father who has a very dark side, contrary to what is stated in both the Old and New Testaments. It brings God’s love into serious question. God never so much as hinted that He had any desire for retribution or that some cosmic and divine justice claim had to be satisfied before He could forgive.

The last phrase in Ephesians 2:5 is, “by grace you have been saved.” Grace was not a theological term when Ephesians, or any other Biblical text, was written. In Greek, grace is the same word as favor, and salvation through sending Jesus is the Father’s favor toward humanity. “God so loved the world that He sent His Son…” The God and Father of our lord Jesus Christ is the one who loved the world (Greek “kosmos”, meaning society), the one who has consistently shown mercy, patience, compassion, and a willingness to seek reconciliation and grant forgiveness. Venting personal wrath and taking retribution against an innocent third-party substitute is not an indication of favor, love, mercy, or any other positive virtue. There is a place for wrath in the administration of justice, but nowhere does God or any Scripture state that the cross of Christ was God administering His justice – unless a person deliberately distorts texts to make this claim.

Ephesians 2:8-10 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” ESV

The topic of works has been dealt with fairly extensively in Chapter 8, Grace and Works, and also regarding statements in Romans in Chapters 16 and 18 of this book. Suffice it to say again that Paul is specifically dealing with works according to the Mosaic law and additional Jewish traditions, and not our basic need to do right and obey (see Hebrews 5:9).  

Ephesians 2:13-18 “But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who once were far off have been brought near by the blood [Covenant] of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace [between Jews and Gentiles], who has made us both one [people of God] and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the [Mosaic] law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both [Jews and Gentiles] to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility [between Jews and Gentiles]. 17 And he came and preached peace to you [Gentiles] who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” ESV, bracketed parts added

Here we read that the blood covenant of Jesus, in his physical flesh and through the cross, brought peace and reconciliation between both Jews and Gentiles, enabling them to have the same spirit of Christ, thus obtaining access to God. It was Jesus Christ who brought about this change in us, not a change in God, which thereby enabled us to have access to God. Our access was not granted by Christ pacifying God’s wrath, thereby enabling the Father to have a new spirit. The reconciliation was triggered by a change on our part, due to what Jesus Christ has done in us! We are given a new spirit, the spirit of Christ, which changes how we think and live. No substitute is involved to do this for us.

Ephesians 4:32-5:2 “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. 1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” ESV

Several things to note about this passage are, 1. The word used for forgiveness here is a different Greek word than what is found in most other mentions of forgiveness. The Greek word here is “charizomai”, which means “favoring graciously”. This is not exactly the word for forgiveness, but forgiveness certainly applies as a possible expression of “charizomai”. It is because of this we are told to “be imitators of God.” However, if we bring PSA into this picture, we have a terrible problem because the passage becomes nonsensical, even absurd! Are we to imitate God by kindly treating others as God treated Christ for our sake, and God graciously favored us by pouring out His wrath on Christ as a favor to us? What is that!? Maybe this would be clearer if the passage were translated within a PSA context as, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you [by pouring His wrath on him]. Due to this, be imitators of God…”  God is the example we are specifically told to imitate, and this means we are to do as He did. If the means of our obtaining forgiveness was by God initiating some version of Penal Substitution (even if you opt for a milder version), how can we use that as a basis for treating others? It is patently absurd. It is one thing to enforce a judicial judgment on a guilty party as an administrative procedure, but it is entirely something else to do it to an innocent party and then use it as an illustration of kindness which we should imitate with each other.

2. The other problem is what we see in verse 2 where we have the phrase “gave himself up for us…” As in most other similar statements, this word translated as “for” is the Greek word “hyper” which indicates a reason. It should be translated as, “Christ…gave himself on account of, or because of, us.” Again, no substitution is given or implied, it has to be assumed and forced into the text.

3. We have to deal with the statement, “Christ…gave himself up…a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” PSA doctrine typically claims that our sins were literally put on Christ, while pointing to 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“he made him to be sin who knew no sin”) or 1 Peter 2:24 (“his own self bore our sins in his own body”). (See Chapters 21 and 27, which deal with these texts.) However, this would make Christ to be a blemished and sinful offering, unacceptable to God. Some teachers try to get around this, making light of the problem by claiming that sin here is merely a label, “S-I-N”. But that results in the mockery of reducing all sin to a mere label. If that can be done, let’s place labels in prison cells and release all the criminals!

Here is what God thinks of those who brought junk sacrifices to the temple: “O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ 7 By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised. 8 When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts. 9 And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the LORD of hosts. 10 Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the LORD of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand.” Malachi 1:6b-10 ESV.

Jesus gave his life as a gift offering to God for the sake of bringing humanity into reconciliation with God. His offering was pure, innocent, and voluntary. Yes, it demonstrated the sin and evil of humanity when he was tortured to death, but the sin was not his own. God was pleased that Jesus was willing and considered his offering as fragrant (metaphorically speaking). God rewarded Jesus with resurrection from the dead, vindicating him, and then further rewarded him by exalting him above all others in power and position. “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” Philippians 2:8-11 ESV.

Ephesians 5:25-27 “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” ESV

This is a very interesting passage relative to atonement, where the author, Paul, makes an analogy between what Christ did for the church and what a husband does for his wife. We again (as in verse 2 of the chapter) have the word “for”, which is the Greek word “hyper”, indicating a reason. It would be better translated as, “Christ… gave himself up on account of, or because of, her.” Substitution certainly does not apply here, as a husband cannot substitute for his wife, especially in the example given where the purpose of giving himself is for her purification. The husband does not purify his wife by purifying himself! Why then did Jesus give himself in this instance? Did he give himself to protect the church from God by absorbing God’s wrath? No, he gave himself with the intent that the church would become pure, which is to say virtuous or righteous. By becoming righteous, the church can be reconciled with God and enjoy fellowship and relationship with Him.


Not only does Ephesians not have any passage that supports Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but there are also multiple passages which strongly refute it and even result in unresolvable absurdities if PSA was what Paul was intending to convey to the church at Ephesus. What we read instead are a multitude of passages which have Christ giving himself as an offering for the sake of the church so that believers in him would release their sinful ways, die to sin, be renewed to favor others, and be righteous in our lives. All this makes us pleasing to God and results in God’s forgiveness, relational restoration, and reconciliation.