The Cross in Context

A book by Jackson Wu, Mission ONE Theologian-in-Residence

In countless cultures around the world, various myths and metaphors direct people to a greater hope beyond mundane material comforts. Chinese burn pictures of iPads on altars for their ancestors. Tribes sacrifice chickens and other animals to purify themselves and please the spirits they fear. Everyone recognizes that the atonement is central to Christian theology. Perhaps no other doctrine is in greater need of contextualization as the church proclaims the message of salvation around the world. Ironically, it is a significant cause of division among Christians who advocate for one or another of their favorite atonement theories.


Countless books and articles that concern the atonement start in the wrong place. They begin with certain atonement theories in mind. They look either to evaluate or to reconcile those theories as they are typically presented. To the degree a person tries to harmonize different views, one effectively assumes the truth of those theories. We too easily debate already developed systems of doctrine. The problem, however, is that we then “lose at the starting line.” Theories are necessary and useful. They simplify vast amounts of information. At the same time, theories often make ideas feel overly complex. They can obscure reality as much as clarify it. This is certainly true with respect to theories of atonement.

By reexamining the fundamental sacrificial metaphors in the Bible, we can better reconcile various biblical theories of atonement and clarify how Christ both honors God and bears our shame on the cross. The biblical writers do not offer a highly systematized doctrine of atonement. Instead, they interweave a particular set of mutually reinforcing metaphors. The Bible uses such imagery to illustrate the meaning and significance of atonement. Contextualizing the Cross does not prioritize one atonement theory against another. Rather, it uses the narrative context of scripture to reconcile common theories of atonement that divide the church.

This book has three interconnected purposes. First, it attempts to guard church unity. It is commonplace to compare the doctrine of atonement to a multifaceted diamond. Christ’s atoning work abounds with significance. Its richness is incalculable. Nevertheless, Christians all too often feel compelled to emphasize one aspect of the atonement over another. In doing so, one picks a “theological team.” Debates about the “most central” or “most fundamental” theory of atonement have long divided Christians.

A second purpose is theological. In light of these disputes, the book seeks to add clarity and cohesion amid the clutter of theories. It shows how biblical writers harmonize the various atonement metaphors that span the canon. As a result, readers will not pit one set of biblical texts against another. This broader perspective of Christ’s atonement is both humbling and hope-giving. It can calm the cackle and clatter that stifles genuine dialogue among Christians. It helps to reconcile theological camps and enables us to interpret the Bible more faithfully.

Third, this book assists readers in contextualizing the Bible’s teaching concerning the atonement. It equips the church to explain the gospel of salvation in ways that are meaningful in an array of cultural contexts. Furthermore, this volume lays the groundwork for practitioners to better comprehend how the atonement affects various aspects of life.

An important result follows from this study. It highlights several ways in which honor and shame shape biblical passages that speak of atonement. These observations provide a more robust view of Christ’s work through the cross and opens up fresh applications for the church.



The Introduction and Chapter One explain the need to revisit the subject of atonement, despite the stacks of books that have been written on the subject. They show how all theories of atonement are attempts to “contextualize” the biblical message. As such, each viewpoint has strengths in addition to innumerable limitations. Through the use of analogies and stories, the book personalizes the topic for readers, preventing it from remaining abstract.

Chapters 2–5 reorient readers unfamiliar with the context from which biblical atonement arises. The metaphors used to describe atonement in the Bible stem from a distinct social and theological context. However, most treatments of the atonement are systematic, philosophical treatises and not rooted in the social and narrative context of the ancient writers. A subtle but significant emphasis on honor and shame reframes the discussion in this section.

Chapters 6-9 examine ways that the biblical authors use three primary metaphors to elucidate the meaning of atonement in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. In this way, readers perceive the textual rootedness of the argument presented in this book. It is not based on historical theories presupposed by our theological traditions.

The final two chapters answer lingering questions and identify several practical applications that arise from the previous discussion.


As a result of this book, I imagine churches and ministries more willing to work together because they appreciate the perspective of others with regard to the multifaceted accomplishment that is the cross. I foresee Christian communities discussing the atonement in noncombative ways, drawing their ideas from the biblical text and not merely traditional, historical theories. Furthermore, I anticipate churches and mission organizations developing a broader range of tools and curriculum that contextualize the atonement for people in various global contexts. Whether the fruit be in the theological realm or the world of missions, I envision the church growing in its reliance of scripture for the development of its theology and mission practice.



Receive emails or messages from people saying they have come to appreciate diverse aspects of the atonement that they did not previously recognize.


See more writers and speakers present the atonement in more integrated ways within 5 years, see more organizations and churches develop tools that explain the atonement more in line with the metaphorical logic found in the Bible.


High sales within the first year (into a second printing), which shows that the message is resonating with people who hear about the book and buy it.