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The third stanza of the hymn The Breaking Of Bread states the following (emphasis added):

Our Savior now doth reign in heav’n above; death's power he overcame, such matchless love; to heav’n he did ascend, there he’s enthroned; he is our dearest friend, for us atoned.

It sounds somewhat strange to say that Jesus was atoned. Perhaps I'm confused, but aren't our sins, rather than Jesus Himself, the things that are atoned (i.e., forgiven). As for Jesus, isn't He the atoner rather than the "atonee," so to speak? Or am I misunderstanding what it means to be atoned?

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    This is 'poetic licence' but has gone too far and has become ambiguous. The words mean 'for us (he) atoned' quite clearly.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 14:54
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    Even though the author is speaking a little bit like Yoda, it is understood that they used to speak like that. (Yoda-speak: "Away put you your weapon! -- I mean you no harm!") I apologize that older ways of speaking popular in some hymns may be misleading, but scripture is clear, and is the authority for understanding what the Hymns were trying to say when they were written. Commented Jul 12, 2022 at 16:10

2 Answers 2

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English grammar is pretty fluid, especially in poetry. The proper way to attach subject, verb, and object here is:

He atoned for us

Thus Jesus performed the actions that accomplished the atonement and he did so on our behalf. The word "atonement" was coined by William Tyndale, translator of the Tyndale Bible. It means that two things that were separate are made one. The believer literally becomes "at one" with God. There was a division between humanity and God caused by sin. Jesus destroyed the dividing wall of hostility and made peace between man and God.

Forgiveness of sins is part of the process that reestablishes our connection with God; it is not the whole process.

The word "for" has many uses. Thus you are right that atonement is "for" sins, because sins cause separation and they are the reason that atonement is necessary. But atonement is also "for" us, because we are the beneficiaries of grace, not our sins. Sins are not people that can receive blessings. Think of it as the "To:" marker for an email recipient.

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  • Thanks for answering. To help with my confusion, if the last line were, "He, as our dearest friend, for us atoned," I could see that "for us atoned" could be "atoned for us." But since the wording's, "He is our dearest friend, for us atoned," then even understanding it as, "He is our dearest friend, atoned for us" sounds like He is "atoned for us," making Him the atonee rather than atoner. Based on the answers and comments, though, I'm sure I'm misreading something. How would, "He is our dearest friend, atoned for us" (to switch the wording of the last phrase) allow Jesus to be the atoner?
    – The Editor
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 12:52
  • I read the original stanza as follows: "Our Savior now doth reign in heav’n above; death's power he overcame, such matchless love; to heav’n he did ascend, there he’s enthroned; he is our dearest friend, for us atoned." becomes "Our Savior reigns in heaven, having overcome death's power. He has matchless love for us. He ascended to heaven, where he's enthroned. He is our dearest friend and He atoned for us." Like the answers have said, poetic (and old-fashioned) grammar can be confusing but hopefully this helps understand what the hymnwriter meant by this lyric.
    – Cullub
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 13:59
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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.

Example hymn

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."

Your hymn

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:

  1. 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."

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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  • Thanks for answering. To help with my confusion, if the last line were, "He, as our dearest friend, for us atoned," I could see that "for us atoned" could be "atoned for us." But since the wording's, "He is our dearest friend, for us atoned," then even understanding it as, "He is our dearest friend, atoned for us" sounds like He is "atoned for us," making Him the atonee rather than atoner. Based on the answers and comments, though, I'm sure I'm misreading something. How would, "He is our dearest friend, atoned for us" (to switch the wording of the last phrase) allow Jesus to be the atoner?
    – The Editor
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 12:48
  • @TheEditor I hope my edits answer your question. Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 14:21
  • Thanks for the extra material. To be clear, I wasn't asking how Jesus being our friend fits with Him being our atoner. Rather, I saying that in the sentence, "He is our dearest friend, atoned for us," I don't see how "atoned" can be the main verb. Rather, it appears that it's adding an additional trait, that Jesus is "atoned for us" (literally, "for us atoned"). But if Jesus is "atoned for us," wouldn't that state He's the atonee? How can we refer to Jesus as "atoned for us" or ("for us atoned") without making Him the atonee?
    – The Editor
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 14:30
  • @TheEditor Sorry I missed the question then. "Jesus atone for us" makes Jesus as the subject, the active doer. "atoned" is past tense form of "atone", don't confuse it with passive form. I take the verb "atone" here as Jesus actively doing whatever necessary to lead us back to the Father. If it helps, I would see us as passive, injured, sheep who can no longer walk, whom he lifts up and carries on his shoulder. Why would he do that? Isn't he the injured party? No. He's doing that because he's our friend. Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 14:33
  • @TheEditor Another helpful way is to understand "Jesus atoned for us" as "Jesus did atoning acts for our benefit". Again, I blame Penal Substitution theory that implies God punished Jesus for us, as though "atoning" is something that happened to Jesus, as though the Father is the active party that delivers punishing blows to Jesus on the cross. No. Jesus is the active party. Jesus performed active works of love and what he did was not merely in the past, but he is still actively present with us today accompanying every moment of our lives. Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 14:40

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