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Archive for May 12th, 2013

Atonement

Please see the last post on the series, “Doctrine of Salvation,” Election

Before I explain to you the various views on the atonement, it is important to keep in mind that one’s understanding of the doctrine of God, Christ, man, sin, and salvation will influence or determine one’s understanding of the atonement.  Since God is holy, he can save sinners from their sins in order to save them.  And since Jesus is God, He can pay for the sins of humanity.  But if one takes the view that Jesus is just a man, then His death has no power to save because he is not God.  Moreover, since the Bible teaches total depravity, that means that man is hopeless and needs a substitute for his sins because man in his imperfect condition cannot atone for sins.

Another important component to keep in mind is the cause of the atonement.  What was the ultimate cause that drove Jesus to come to this sinful world and die on behalf of wicked sinners?[1]

In light of my overall study of Scripture, I believe it is motivated by the glory of God’s love and justice.  Because God loved sinners, He sent His representation, His Son, perfect and Holy, to die on behalf of His people.  No other sacrifice would suffice God’s justice, but only His Son.

Man is not good and can never offer a perfect sacrifice.  Let us now move into some key questions before we get into the historical views.  After going over the historical views, we will find out what historical view answers the key questions.

Some of the questions that need to be answered are as follows, “Could God really allow all of humanity to go to hell, is there something within God’s nature that requires Him to make the way of salvation, could God have atone for man’s sins that did not involve the death of His Son, what did Jesus sacrifice do, and how does Jesus’ death on the cross affect people over 2,000 years later, did the cross achieve something objective or subjective, how could Jesus’ death pay for every sin, did Jesus die only for the elect or for all, how were Old Testament saints saved, did the blood of animals take away the sins of the Old Testament saints, etc.  I probably will not be able to answer all the key questions mentioned, but I just wanted to throw out the questions to satisfy your curiosity.  Let us now move into the historical views of the atonement.

The first view I will tackle is the classic or ransom theory that was held by some church fathers such as Origen, Gustaf Aulen and others.  This view believes that the ransom Christ paid to redeem us was paid to Satan in exchange for the souls of humans that are held captive to Satan.  This view finds no direct support in Scripture and has few supporters in the history of the church.  Instead of viewing God as the person who requires payment be made to Him, this view thinks of Satan as the one who required payment from Christ in order to free sinners.  This reason is unbiblical because it rejects the biblical understanding of God’s justice.  The justice of God can be seen through the administration of God’s law.  The ransom views fails to understand that they give more power to Satan than he actually has.  The truth is that Satan was thrown out of heaven by God and is subordinate to Him.  Another thing this view fails to take into account is Christ’s propitiation that was offered to God the Father.  His sacrifice was never to propitiate or please Satan.  The ransom or classic theory that was developed mainly by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa needs to be rejected.  The key text they use in Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 which stresses that Christ died to give His life as a ransom for many is taken out of context and hence misinterpreted.  Thank God for men like Gregory of Nazianzus and Athanasius who rejected this view.  The next view is the satisfaction theory.

The satisfaction theory views the atonement of Jesus as compensation to the Father by satisfying His honor.  Anselm was instrumental in developing this view that emphasized the idea of feudal overlord.  In order to satisfy God’s honor, he believed that Christ’s death was sufficient.  Anselm rejected the view that Christ’s death was to pay a ransom to Satan.  At the end of the day, the way to distinguish the ransom theory from the substitutionary view of the atonement is to know which bucket the two key terms, God’s honor and His wrath, falls under.  For the satisfaction theory, they do not believe satisfying God’s wrath is included.  The next view is the moral influence theory.

The moral influence theory robs the objective aspect of the substitutionary atonement.  This view, which is first advocated by Peter Abelard (1079-1142), a French theologian believes that the moral influence theory is simply about showing the death of Christ as God’s love for us; and how much He loved us.  His death was to identify with our sufferings.  It is clear that this view exalts mostly love, while ignoring the justice and holiness of God are not emphasized.  This view also believes that God’s love is so strong that it overcomes the resistance of the wicked sinners.  The view believes that the love of God is strong that it will compel humans to come to God.   Many Unitarians adopt this view.  The problem with the moral influence theory is its lack of perspective on the objective character of the atonement.    There are many passages in the Bible that speaks of Jesus dying for our sin, bearing our sin, and dying as propitiation.  Jesus’ death propitiated His Father’s wrath.  Because of God’s justice, the wrath of God had to be satisfied.  If not, we would be dead in our sin.  The next view is the governmental theory.

The government theory which was first taught by a Dutch theologian and jurist, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) believes that God did not actually require a payment for sin.  Since God is omnipotent He could of set aside His righteous requirement and simply forgive sins without the payment for a penalty.  The question still persists.  If Christ did require a payment for sin, then what was the purpose of His death?  In response, they note that as the Lawgiver, who requires a penalty when His laws are broken; Jesus on the other hand, satisfied the law by simply suffering.  However, His suffering shows that there must have been some penalty paid to God.  The government theory view does not answer the question adequately.  To say that Christ’s death was not a payment of an actual sin we committed, but to say that is death was simply that of an object used by God to make us realize that God’s laws must be kept, robs the objective character of the atonement.  Those that advocate this view must realize that Christ died for His people’s actual sin.  To deny that objective reality is blemish the unchangeableness of God and the infinite purity of His holy justice that we see in the pages of Scripture.  We must not underestimate the absolute character of the justice of God.  The next view is the universal reconciliation theory.

The universal reconciliation theory, views that Christ’s death reconciled the entire world to God.  In other words, the cross signifies the election of everyman through the death of His Son.  The death of Christ intended to save everyone.  This view is clearly unbiblical, because we know that not everyone receives the benefits of the cross because according to the Bible, not everyone will be saved.

The view that is biblical and that Christians should embrace is penal substitution.  This conveys the notion that Jesus Christ bore the just penalty for our sins and by doing that He appeased or satisfied the anger and wrath of God.  Penal substitution is a humbling truth because it is a powerful reminder that we as sinners, deserved to die from the penalty of sin.  We deserve to absorb the wrath of God, we deserve to be separated from God by our sins, we deserve to be in bondage to sin, and we deserve to be in the kingdom of Satan.


[1]Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 568.

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