The Atonement: A Survey of Various Models

Note: This is part of a series on the atonement. The 1st 2 parts can be found here and here 

The main point of all the verses I surveyed seems to be this: We were sinners, guilty before God. God sent his son as a sin offering for us. His sin offering sufficiently atoned for our wrong doing so that we can be declared innocent by God.

How Did Jesus’ Death Atone for Our Sin?

Christ on the Cross
Christ on the Cross (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several theories have been proposed. I summarize some of them here:

  • The Ransom Theory: The earliest of all, originating with the Early Church Fathers, this theory claims that Christ offered himself as a ransom. Where it was not clear was in its understanding of exactly to whom the ransom was paid. Many early church fathers viewed the ransom as paid to Satan.
    • For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mk 10: 45
  • The Recapitulation Theory: Originated with Irenaeus. He sees Christ as the new Adam, who systematically undoes what Adam did. Thus, where Adam was disobedient concerning God’s edict concerning the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of a tree. In addition to reversing the wrongs done by Adam, Irenaeus thinks of Christ as “recapitulating” or “summing up” human life.
    • In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, Paul calls Christ the second Adam and compares him to the first Adam, but he does not  propose the recapitulation theory in any evident manner.
  • The Penal-Substitution Theory: This view was formulated by the 16th century Reformers as an extension of Anselm’s Satisfaction theory. Anselm’s theory was correct in introducing the satisfaction aspect of Christ’s work and its necessity, however the Reformers saw it as insufficient because it was referenced to God’s honor rather than his justice and holiness and was couched more in terms of a commercial transaction than a penal substitution. This Reformed view says simply that Christ died for man, in man’s place, taking his sins and bearing them for him. The bearing of man’s sins takes the punishment for them and sets the believer free from the penal demands of the law: The righteousness of the law and the holiness of God are satisfied by this substitution.
    • Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. – Isaiah 53
    • 2 Cor. 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
    • 1 John 2:2, “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”
    • 1 Pet 2: 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness;
  • The Moral-Example Theory (or Moral-Influence Theory): Christ died to influence mankind toward moral improvement. This theory denies that Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice, but teaches instead that His death was designed to greatly impress mankind with a sense of God’s love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance. Thus, the Atonement is not directed towards God with the purpose of maintaining His justice, but towards man with the purpose of persuading him to right action.
  • Christus Victor (Christ the Victor): In Christus Victor, the atonement is viewed as divine conflict and victory over the hostile powers that hold humanity in subjection. Gustav Aulén argues that the classic Ransom theory is not so much a rational systematic theory as it is a drama, a passion story of God triumphing over the powers and liberating humanity from the bondage of sin. As the term Christus Victor indicates, the idea of “ransom” should not be seen in terms (as Anselm did) of a business transaction, but more of a rescue or liberation of humanity from the slavery of sin. Unlike the Satisfaction or Penal-substitution views of the atonement rooted in the idea of Christ paying the penalty of sin to satisfy the demands of justice, the Christus Victor view is rooted in the incarnation and how Christ entered into human misery and wickedness and thus redeemed it. Irenaeus called this “Recapitulation” (re-creation). As it is often expressed: “Jesus became what we are so that we could become what he is”.
    • Colossians 2: 13 – 15 He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Of the theories proposed, the Penal Substitution theory is the only one that completely explains the Biblical evidence – as opposed to explaining it away (the characterization of Christ’s act as a ‘sin offering’, ‘becoming sin for us’ or ‘taking our sins’). It is my view that not all these views are necessarily false. Christ is our moral example. He did do what Adam could not. And he did achieve victory over Satan on the cross. But as you can see from Col 2 (quoted above), this victory was tied to his taking away our sins on the cross.

So like most issues of this type, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

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Tracy

I’m Tracy

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