Throughout 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
Second, 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
Fourth, 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.
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.
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.