June 26, 2015

Theories of the Atonement: What Happened on the Cross?

by Mike Riccardi

AtonementThroughout church history, there have been various views and theories that conceptualize the nature of Christ’s work on the cross. Because the atonement runs to the very heart of the Gospel, it’s important for us to know how people throughout the history of the church have understood the work of Christ, and to be able to test each by Scripture. Today, I want to briefly survey and evaluate some of the main theories of the atonement.

The Ransom Theory

First, there is what is known as the ransom, or classic, theory of the atonement. Also termed Christus Victor, this theory regards Christ’s atonement as accomplishing a victory over the cosmic forces of sin, death, evil, and Satan. Proponents of the ransom view believe that in the cosmic struggle between good and evil and between God and Satan, Satan had held humanity captive to sin. Therefore, in order to rescue humanity, God had to ransom them from the power of Satan by delivering Jesus over to him as an exchange for the souls held captive. Proponents of the ransom theory often appeal to Jesus’ statement that He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45).

Though Christ did give His life as a ransom for many, and though His death did indeed disarm the powers of darkness (Col 2:15), rendering powerless the devil who had the power of death (Heb 2:14), this view of the atonement affords more power to Satan than he actually has. Satan has never been in any position to make demands of God. Instead of this, Scripture makes it clear that Jesus paid the price on behalf of sinners to ransom them from the just punishment of God’s holy wrath (Rom 5:9). In the deepest sense, Jesus saved us from God, not merely the power of sin and Satan.

The Satisfaction Theory

Anselm of CanterburySecond, the satisfaction theory, championed chiefly by Anselm of Canterbury, supports the idea that Christ’s death made a satisfaction to the Father for sin. However, taking a cue from the paradigm of feudalism that characterized society at that time, Anselm focused more on the notion of making satisfaction for God’s wounded honor rather than the appeasement of His righteous wrath.

Now again, it is certainly true that God’s glory is belittled when sin is committed. Indeed, sin is synonymous with failing to honor
God by giving Him thanks (Rom 1:21) and falling short of His glory (Rom 3:23). Thus, any adequate theory of atonement will vindicate God’s righteousness and restore His honor.

But Christ accomplished this vindication of righteousness in a particular way: by becoming a substitute for sinners, vicariously enduring in His body the punishment that was justly due to us (1 Pet 2:24). By setting forth Jesus as a propitiation of holy wrath, God has displayed Himself as both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Christ (Rom 3:26).

The Moral Influence Theory

Next, the moral influence theory of the atonement regards Christ’s work as little more than a beautiful example of sacrificial Christian love and behavior. Championed first by Peter Abelard in the 12th century and then by most liberal theologians, the moral influence theory posited that Jesus’ death did not accomplish anything objective. One writer explained, “There were no obstacles in God that needed to be overcome in order for sinners to be restored to fellowship with Creator. No satisfaction of justice and no placation of wrath was required on God’s side.” Instead, Christ’s death was merely an example of how humanity should act. By the demonstration of such love, Christ’s death was said to win over the hearts of impenitent sinners and thus woo them to live a moral life as Jesus did—hence the designation “moral influence.” Proponents also stressed that the atonement was a way for God to empathetically identify with His creatures by sharing in their sufferings.

While these seem to be nice sentiments, and while it’s certainly true that Jesus’ sacrifice is the exemplar of Christian love and service (cf. John 15:12; Eph 5:1–2; 1 Pet 2:24; 1 John 3:16), to reduce the atonement to a mere example vitiates it of what makes it truly loving—namely, that Christ has objectively and sufficiently paid for our sins, and appeased the holy wrath of a deeply offended God, who was made our mortal enemy because of our sin (Rom 5:10; 8:7–8). One cannot deny these central truths of sin and grace inherent in the atonement and truly remain a follower of Jesus Christ.

The Governmental Theory

GrotiusFourth, the governmental theory of the atonement was first propounded by Hugo Grotius, a student of Arminius in the 17th century. The governmental theory downplays the notion that Christ paid a penalty that corresponded with our particular sins. Instead, Christ’s death served as a token suffering for sins in general—demonstrating that a penalty must be paid when laws are broken. In fact, proponents of the governmental theory hold that God’s justice did not actually demand a payment for sin; by accepting merely token suffering, God “set aside His law” and could have “relaxed his law” altogether since He is “liable to no law” (Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, 154–55). Nevertheless He chose to punish Christ in order to main the moral order and government of the universe (hence the name). Christ’s punishment also acts as a deterrent against future sin, since it shows the fearful lengths to which God will go in order to uphold the moral government of the world.

Here we have another case of a theory of the atonement capturing part of the picture, but, by not providing the full breadth of Scriptural testimony, failing to present a truly biblical conception of the atonement. Christ did, in fact, pay the penalty for specific sins. His sufferings were not merely a token example of God’s antipathy towards evil, as if He generally doesn’t like evil but tolerates it on the whole. No, God’s justice is meticulous; He has provided a fully sufficient payment for sin in Christ. Without particular payment for particular sins, we have no hope of forgiveness.

Penal Substitution

The final theory of the atonement that I’ll discuss—the one that I believe to be the most biblical—is the one I’ve been referring to as I’ve discussed each of the previous views. It is called the penal substitution theory. This means that in His death Christ paid the penalty (hence, penal) that our sins incurred by suffering vicariously, in our place, as our substitute (hence, substitution). The righteous wrath that our sins aroused in God was exercised fully on the Suffering Servant when God “caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isa 53:6). The Savior, our Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7; John 1:29) who knew no sin, was made sin on our behalf (2 Cor 5:21), becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13), and thus extinguished the Father’s wrath against our sin (Heb 2:17). Because of this sufficient sacrifice, and the provision of Christ’s own righteousness reckoned to our account, our sins can be justly forgiven and we can be reconciled to God.

1 Pet 2;24

As I mentioned above, each of the previous views have had some truth in them, and so these theories of the atonement are not mutually exclusive. We may affirm that Christ’s death and resurrection defeated death and ransomed sinners, but we have to make the qualification that that ransom was paid to God and not to Satan. Similarly, we may affirm that Christ’s death satisfied God’s wounded honor, but we must hasten to add that it also satisfied God’s righteous anger and justice by providing a sufficient payment for sin. Further, the cross is indeed a wonderful moral example of Christian behavior, but we fall woefully short if we fail to recognize that it is so much more than that. Finally, the atonement was indeed an instance of God’s moral governance of the universe, yet it was more specific than Grotius and others stated it to be. Without the concept of penal substitution undergirding all of these other pictures of the atonement, we fail to do adequate justice to the full-orbed biblical picture of Jesus as the sin-bearing, wrath-propitiating Substitute for sinners.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
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  • E S Gonzalez

    Thank you Papa God for not leaving us to ourselves and the end we deserve but extending mercy … grace … salvation through Jesus Messiah! What an intensely humbling and arresting love!

  • Tavis Bohlinger

    Thanks, Mike. I’ll be using some of this material in my preaching tomorrow, if that’s okay!

  • Sean Dione

    This article, though informative historically, is pointless. In today’s world, atonement is discussed in one of two terms: “Limited Atonement” preached by the Calvinist; and “Unlimited Atonement” as preached by Arminian and independent theologians. I would be very interested to read what Mike Riccardi can write along these two areas of atonement.

    • John Brand

      Sean, although Mike is addressing historical views this is far from a pointless exercise because these views still influence and explain the views that many hold today without fully realising their weaknesses. I regularly come across professing Christians whose beliefs are closer to these views than to the Bible. With respect, understanding how the church has wrestled with biblical doctrines down through the years and especially in the early centuries is of immense importance to us today. Blessings

    • Sean, you are woefully mistaken, friend. If it were only the case that penal substitution was accepted by all who claim the name of Christ! Indeed, it would be a blessing even if it were accepted by all who claim the name of “evangelical.” I’m glad that the cross-section of Christ’s church with which you interact may have no need to be exhorted to reject inadequate theories of the nature of the atonement because they all happily accept penal substitution. But outside your corner of the church, things are not as bright, and so these lessons are necessary. It’s what makes books like this one so necessary.

      Besides this, it’s short-sighted to think that the issue you bring up — i.e., the extent of the atonement — is entirely divorced from an unaffected by the issue addressed in this post — i.e., the nature of the atonement. Before we talk about the scope of what Christ accomplished, we have to agree on what precisely He has accomplished.

      For example, the “governmental theory” of the atonement (#4 above), which was first outlined by Grotius, is accepted by many (most?) Arminian theologians as a more primary conception of the atonement than penal substitution. If God’s design in the atonement was simply to demonstrate the general principle that there is penalty for sin, but that Christ wasn’t actually paying for particular sins of particular people, then of course they would hold to an “atonement” that is unlimited in its extent. But if the heart of the Gospel is penal substitution — i.e., that a Substitute has actually received in Himself the penalty for the sins of those for whom He died — then the only logical conclusion is that the atonement is limited in its extent (though unlimited and infinite in its efficacy). I do write more on the extent of the atonement here, here, and here.

      Apart from discussions of the extent of the atonement, discussions of the nature of the atonement are vitally important to the Gospel. If we misunderstand what Christ has accomplished on the cross, we may very well not be saved. But at the very least, even if we were focused only on the extent of the atonement, there is perhaps no more important doctrine to consider than the nature of the atonement, because it is the nature of the atonement that defines its extent.

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  • Mike – Would you say there is a distinction in the terms propitiation and atonement?

    In 1 John 2:2, when John writes propitiation … for the whole world … what does he mean.

    I recently had a friend challenge what I’d call the traditional view of this verse by stating a propitiation, when properly exegeted, simply means payment. Not necessarily a wrath satisfying payment, and that it is a distinct term from atonement.

    The point he made was Jesus IS payment for the whole world (meaning everyone everywhere), but the atonement only applies to believers.

    This way, he can allow the whole world to still mean “the whole world.”

    I was wondering if you ever had heard of this or your thoughts. I always understood propitiation to be the satisfaction…but he is saying the Greek word doesn’t demand that and it is better hermeneutics to do what he is doing.

    • I don’t think I’ve heard that exact argument, but I’ve heard arguments that come in that precise form before, and I don’t find them (or this one) convincing in the least.

      Notice first that your friend’s interpretive guide is to let “the whole world” mean “the whole world” — that is, at least what he thinks the plain meaning of “the whole world” means, which I would contend John does not mean. In the very first place, your friend is begging the question by supposing that “the whole world” must obviously mean “all without exception.” Secondly, notice that in his desire to “allow” the whole world to mean his interpretation of the whole world, he has to force hilasmos to mean something other than hilasmos. This is just an important point to make at the outset, because so many times the traditional 5-pointer gets accused of twisting Scripture to fit a theological grid. We’re accused of changing “the whole world” to mean something less than “the whole world.” But those who challenge that position employ the very same exegetical-theological method. It’s simply that they make the interpretation of the nature of the atonement subservient to the interpretation of the scope of the atonement, while we give interpretive priority to the nature of the atonement and determine its extent from its nature. So in the first place, notice this move.

      In the second place, I would challenge his dichotomization of atonement and propitiation. I would be interested to know what “distinct term” be believes actually speaks of propitiation. I don’t think he’s right on that. I also would be interested to know where this view fits in to the historical discussion. Who held this view before him? Or is it new with him?

      In any case, I disagree that the notion of “propitiation” is not inherent in the vocabulary of “atonement.” Indeed, different translations translate the same words interchangeably. Where the NAS translates hilasmos “propitiation” in 1 John 2:2, the NIV translates the very same word, “atoning sacrifice.” The thoughts are interchangeable. That’s what a hilasmos is. And it’s also important to note that the LXX uses this word group (hilasmos, hilasterion, hilaskomai) to translate the Hebrew kaphar, which is the verb for “making atonement.” Did the high priest not actually make atonement for the sins of the nation on the Day of Atonement? Should it have been called the “Day of Payment?” Of course not! Read through Leviticus. Note every instance the word “atonement” shows up, and then notice the immediate statement of the efficaciousness of that atonement by saying what the atonement effectively accomplished. Atonement immediately produces forgiveness and cleansing (cf. Lev 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18, 6:7; 12:7-8; 14:20, 53; 16:30; 19:22). It does not merely provide some sort of potential “payment” that doesn’t actually pay without the sinner’s faith granting it its efficacy.

      And that brings me to a third point. It really is an equivocation to distinguish between “payment” and “wrath satisfying payment.” In what sense, then, would the atonement be a payment at all? The likely answer: “in a potential sense.” But a potential payment is not a payment. A potential payment stops short of an actual payment. And if “x” is not “an actual x,” it is not x.

      Do you see what interpretive-theological lengths one has to go to in order to deny particular redemption? The nature of the atonement is made subservient to its scope; you’ve got an atonement that doesn’t forgive, and a payment that doesn’t pay. That’s what I have to accept to believe in unlimited atonement (or some sort of halfway position that thinks it’s the via media but really isn’t).

      On the other hand, all I have to do to be a 5-pointer is believe — NOT that “the whole world” doesn’t mean “the whole world” — but simply that “the whole world” refers to “all without distinction” rather than “all without exception.” I think that interpretive move does far less exegetical and theological violence to the text (both in 1 John 2:2 and the rest of Scripture) than the alternative you’ve described.

      • Thanks. I knew you’d explain it better than I could.

        Allow me to be more fair to my friend. He is a 5 point Calvinist, too. His belief though is that it is not arbitrary to assume whole world means everyone without exception but that that is the plain reading of the text.

        It is that hermeneutic which drove him to come to a different understanding that I had (or anyone else for that matter) on the word hilasmos.

        I am not doing him justice by trying to represent what we talked about in about a 20 minute conversation. Hopefully, he will clarify his position at some point in a post.

        But I do appreciate you taking time to make it more academic for me as I don’t have the training (or vocabulary!) you do.

        • I understand. I won’t hold your friend to your summary-version of him. 🙂

          His belief though is that it is not arbitrary to assume whole world means everyone without exception but that that is the plain reading of the text.

          But this is still problematic. The reality is: “everyone without exception” is not the “plain reading” of the text. When there is disagreement about the “plain reading,” who gets to decide what the “plain reading” is? And upon what basis do they make that judgment other than their own inclination? The answer is: no one; there is no such basis; the proper reading has to be argued for.

          Otherwise, I could have just skipped everything I wrote above and said, “‘Propitiation’ is the plain reading of hilasmos. QED.” But that wouldn’t be fair to him, as the very point in question is the legitimacy of that reading of hilasmos.

          Here’s the issue in 1 John 2:2. We have a statement of the nature of the atonement (propitiation), and a statement of the scope or extent of that work (the whole world). A superficial reading of the text seems to be indicate some sort of tension at first, because propitiation for all without exception means universal salvation. But because we’ve come to sound exegetical conclusions from other portions of Scripture, those conclusions teach us that such a superficial interpretation of 1 John 2:2 is problematic. So, as responsible exegetes who actually want to be a benefit to the people of God by helping them understand how any particular portion of God’s Word fits with the rest, we conclude against adopting that problematic interpretation and we aim for an alternative.

          That alternative is arrived at in one of two ways. (1) We accept the superficial interpretation of “whole world” as “all without exception,” and therefore modify the nature of the atonement (i.e., “propitiation”). This is what your friend is doing. This is also what the Arminians, hypothetical universalists, and so-called “multiple-intentions” guys do (which is why I’m a little skeptical of the claim that he’s a 5-pointer). But there is no exegetical basis to modify our understanding of the nature of the atonement in a way that moves away from the concepts of full propitiation.

          The other option is: (2) We accept the statement of the nature of the atonement as propitiation (supported by the lexical value of the hilasmos word group, OT/LXX usage, exegesis of other NT passages, and OT & NT theology), and ask ourselves if there is a way to understand “whole world” that would not do violence to the grammar, context, and authorial intent of 1 John 1-2, but that would also avoid the problematic implications of universalism. The answer is: there is indeed a way. And that is to understand “the whole world” to refer to “all without distinction” rather than “all without exception.” Whether John is trying to include both Jews and Gentiles, or whether he’s trying to include both the churches in Asia Minor along with God’s people throughout the climes of the world (cf. John 10:16; 11:52; Rev 5:9), this interpretive conclusion fits the grammar, context, and authorial intent of the passage before us, doesn’t contradict any other passage of Scripture, and avoids the undesirable conclusions of universalism that are unavoidable on the superficial reading. Therefore, it’s much more preferable to make this interpretive move rather than the one your friend is suggesting.

          Hope that helps man.

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