Hymns and grammar
The language of traditional hymns can take a while to get used to, since for rhyming purpose the grammatical parts are frequently moved around, especially the verbs, which are moved after the object / prepositional phrase.
Another reason is that musically, the last note of each metrical line is important, further emphasizing the rhymed syllable with longer duration and tone climax in the musical phrase.
For example, let's look at Martin Luther's famous 1527 hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God translated from German to English by 19th century American Frederic Henry Hedge amazingly preserving the original rhyming scheme:
A mighty fortress is our God;
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow'r are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not His equal.
- In the 1st line, "Our God is a mighty fortress" becomes "A mighty fortress is our God." to rhyme with the 3rd line.
- In the 4th line, the verb "prevailing" is moved after the prepositional phrase "amid the flood of mortal ills" to rhyme with the 2nd line. Compare the original: "He, our helper, is prevailing amid the flood of mortal ills."
Similar transformation happens in your hymn.
First, let's put the 3rd stanza in metrical lines (10.10.10.10):
Our Savior now doth reign, in heav'n above;
Death's pow'r He overcame, such matchless love;
To heav'n He did ascend; there He's enthroned;
He is our dearest Friend, for us atoned.
It should now be clear why the verb "atoned" is moved to after the prepositional phrase "for us": so that the last 2 syllables of line 3 and line 4 match: "enthroned" and "atoned".
Therefore, the meaning is also clear: Jesus is the atoner, not the "atonee".
"atoned for us" and "atoned for our sins"
Both constructions are common. Google search for
atoned for us yield 158,000 results while Google search for
atoned for our sins yield 63,800 results.
Examples for the first construction:
- "Jesus's death
atoned for us"
- "Jesus has
atoned for us by His blood."
- "Our Savior
atoned for us."
- "through the shedding of His blood
atoned for us from our sins."
- "And by his death as mortal man,
atoned for us, became our peace.", etc.
Examples for the second construction:
- "Jesus Christ
atoned for our sins by suffering in Gethsemane."
- "He has not only
atoned for our sins, but He Himself is the propitiation."
The word "atone" as a verb in English has become to mean
to make amends : to provide or serve as reparation or compensation for something bad or unwelcome —usually + for
with synonyms to expiate, mend, redeem. Dictionaries also pointed out the older meaning of "atone" as "reconcile", which is closer to the meaning in Christian theology.
Did Jesus do more than paying for our sins?
Given the current meaning of "atone", and given the popularity among evangelicals of the Penal substitution theory explaining why Jesus died, atoning
"for our sins" is easier to grasp. Those who see Jesus's work as primarily "paying" for our sins would then cite Isa 53:5 for support, part of the prophetic Servant songs in the book of Isaiah:
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
But if we look at the other verses in the Servant songs closely (Isa 42:1-4, Isa 49:1-6, Isa 50:4-11, Isa 52:13-53:12), we can already see hints that what Jesus did is more than paying for our sins:
- restoring the people of Israel and bringing light to the Gentiles (Isa 49:6)
- carry our weaknesses and the burden of our sorrows (Isa 53:4)
When Christian theologians look at the whole picture of what Jesus did by creating other theories of atonement to tease out the various meanings of Jesus's whole earthly ministry recorded in the Bible, it will become easier to see that Jesus not only
"atone for our sins" (what we did) but
"atone for us" (what we are), transforming the whole of us (mind, will, desire, emotion) into someone who can truly love God and our neighbors, acting as true children of the Father.
For example, the Christus Victor theory sees Christ's death more in terms of defeating the power of evil that holds us bondage to our sin nature (because of original sin). And John's gospel is famous for the 7 "I AM" statements, which includes Jesus being a "good shepherd", "true vine", etc. The hymn you cited (The Breaking of Bread) is a communion song, highlighting Jesus as "bread of life".
Jesus as our friend who atoned for us
I now try to address your follow up question:
How would, "He is our dearest friend, atoned for us" (to switch the wording of the last phrase) allow Jesus to be the atoner?
When I was a kid in Sunday school, one picture that sticks to me is a big smiling Jesus dressed as a down to earth fisherman (with nets and all) gesturing with a hand stretched out to take my hand for journeying with him as a fisherman (boat seen in the background). I still remember the face: so radiant and welcoming, making me feel safe and ready to trust him, someone who is ready to hear all my troubles and bring me comfort. Then of course we sang What a Friend We Have in Jesus.
Jesus said that we should be like children, so the above image and the feelings it generated in me long ago can still apply, even though I am now a father and read a lot of theology.
So my answer is:
Jesus as friend helps remove our fear of punishment caused by the guilt of sins. When we realize we did something wrong to others, we tend to hide from them. We did a lot of wrong to our Father, but our Father sent Jesus to say "it's okay, I forgive you, I want you back, here's my Son as a token of my invitation."
Jesus as atoner takes care of EVERYTHING that serves as a gap between our current state and our full transformation. Paying God back for our sins is an INCOMPLETE image, as though God is primarily an accountant who will not be satisfied until someone (whether you or Jesus) pays the last penny of any injury (to his justice, honor, etc.) making God looks like a vengeful tyrant.
There are regrets and pains that linger even after the debt has been paid (let's say our sins result in lost opportunities or in a disability). Or let's say we suffer from other people's sins (think war in Ukraine). Jesus as atoner should cover these sorrows too.
Therefore, "allowing Jesus to be our friend and personal atoner" means deciding to enlist Jesus as a companion in our journey to wholeness and reconciliation beyond merely having Him as a redeemer who pays for our sins. "allowing" here means opening our spiritual eye to realize that Jesus is always next to us, ready to comfort and to hold us when we are vulnerable, threatened, regretful, suffering, etc if we allow him. More than reconciling us to the Father, Jesus is also a healer who mends all our sorrows.