Song of Redemption: One Truth in Many Atonement Theories

Eric Landry
Thursday, March 1st 2018
Mar/Apr 2018

At the heart of the Christian story are the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. The significance of Christ’s atonement for sins (the very basis of his name and his mission) is what makes Christianity truly Christian: a religion with Christ at its redemptive center. The way that evangelical Christians have spoken of the atonement has usually centered on Christ’s sacrifice for us, a substitution to satisfy the demands of divine justice, thus making his death a penal substitution. The overwhelming testimony of Scripture—from the promise of a redeemer for Adam and Eve, through the Jewish sacrifices, the prophetic hopes of a Messiah, the birth narratives of Jesus, and the Epistles to the earliest churches—has affirmed that through the death of Christ, God’s people are put into right relationship with God, sin is forgiven, and new spiritual life is born.

It is becoming increasingly popular, however, for evangelical Christians to wonder if more should be said about the atonement than the traditional formulation of “penal substitution.” Are there other biblical motifs of the atonement that can be considered together to fill out the song of redemption? Are there notes missing from the language evangelicals have used in the past for articulating and understanding the atonement?

Generally, Reformation-oriented churches are known for their emphasis on the penal substitutionary character of Christ’s death. This means that God’s justice requires eternal suffering for sin, but because of God’s love and compassion, the Son took humankind’s place, suffered in their stead, and secured eternal redemption of their sins. According to this view, both the life and death of Christ have redemptive significance, since the Son stands as humanity’s federal representative and must provide positive righteousness as well as atone for unrighteousness. The end result, then, of Christ’s life and death is not merely a right judicial standing before God but also a relationship with God as adopted sons and joint heirs with Christ. In light of his work of redemption, we are called to emulate Christ by taking up our own crosses, choosing to suffer for what is good, and participating in the work of reconciliation that God is accomplishing through Christ.

The Reformation leaned upon Anselm’s explanation of the death of Christ in his famous work Cur Deus Homo, “Why the God Man?” (late eleventh century). Using Anselm’s insights, the theologians of both the Lutheran and Reformed branches of the Reformation developed the ideas that led to the way we speak about vicarious atonement today. But their appeal to Anselm has led some to equate the Reformation’s doctrine of the atonement with Anselm’s satisfaction theory. This idea states that sin robbed God of the honor that was due to him as Creator and King. This insult to God’s honor introduced disorder in the universe, affecting even the nonhuman creation, causing it to “groan” while eagerly awaiting the day of redemption (Rom. 8:19). Jesus’ death satisfies God’s honor and restores the created order. Certainly, there are ideas here worth preserving: sin is an insult, humanity’s rebellion did introduce chaos into the world order, and Jesus’ death and resurrection is the hinge upon which the “world to come” breaks in on the world that now is. But to agree with these aspects of the theory does not mean that we embrace the underlying idea that sin is chiefly a debt to God’s honor or that Jesus’ sacrifice merely placates God’s honor without reference to the guilt and pollution of sin or the wrath of God.

At roughly the same time that Anselm was formulating his theory, his contemporary Abelard (early twelfth century) was thinking in a different direction. Abelard’s theory became known as the moral influence theory of the atonement. This theory has come to mean that the death of Christ on the cross is a demonstration of God’s great love for us and his hatred of sin. Sacrificing Jesus for our sin does not actually accomplish redemption but is used by God to move humans to repentance.

Closely related to the moral influence theory is the example theory put forth by Socinus (late sixteenth century), which maintains that Jesus’ death did not atone for sin but rather was an example of true obedience to God (which is the way of salvation) and now inspires his followers to lead a similar life.

In an attempt to provide a “third way” between the Reformation’s view of the atonement and Socinus’s example theory, a Dutch theologian named Grotius (early seventeenth century) advocated the governmental theory of the atonement. This theory states that through the death of Christ, God revealed to his creatures the nature of his law and his wrath toward sin; Jesus served as an example of sin’s consequences. Advocates of this theory maintain that Jesus did not suffer the exact penalty for sin but that God adjusted the law’s requirements and accepted Jesus’ sacrifice as a token payment, thus ensuring that he maintained his moral rule over the universe.

Recently, some evangelicals have been looking east to find alternative theories of the atonement. Many of the theories that are influenced by Eastern Orthodox theology can be summed up under the general heading of an incarnational theory. The chief element these theories seek to uphold is the idea that Jesus’ death is the culmination of a life lived in identity with the creature and that the cross was his experience of alienation from God that sin introduced in human life. By faith, humans are united to Christ and participate in the full life of God (the Greek Orthodox idea of theosis). Again, there is much to commend this idea: Jesus did, indeed, live our life for us; he was the last Adam, our federal head. And, as we are united to Christ, we do share in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). But more than just an existential identification with us (sharing our pain and trouble), Jesus as the God-Man enters into our lives to redeem us from our sin and rebellion. We must not lose the idea of guilt incurred by our sin; for we are not only victims, we are also victimizers.

So, where do we go from here? Are the Christians who support an incarnational theory to be driven out of the camp? How do we weave all of these various motifs together? Better yet, should we? Mark Dever, frequent MR contributor and pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., reflects on this question in an essay for Christianity Today:

While a victor may have moral influence on those for whom he conquered, may he not also be a substitute? While Christ’s example of self-giving love may also defeat our enemies, may he not, by the same act, propitiate God’s wrath? Each of the theories conveys biblical truth about the atoning work of Christ. I don’t doubt that we have more to learn from Christ’s death than simply the fact that he died as a substitute for us, bearing our grief and carrying our sorrows (Isa. 53:4). Peter, for instance, teaches that we should follow Christ’s example of suffering for that which is good (1 Pet. 3). Any biblical understanding of the Atonement must take into account our having been united to Christ by faith, adopted and regenerated in him. As those who belong to him, as his temple and his body, we expect the fruit of his Spirit to be evident in us. Because of the Atonement, we expect a new quality to our lives (Rom. 6; 2 Cor. 5; Gal. 5; 2 Pet. 1). The Atonement is not merely moral influence, but it surely results in moral improvement. Rather than pitting these theories against one another, couldn’t they be evaluated together? A Christ who wins victory over the powers of evil, whose death changes us, and whose death propitiates God is not only conceivable, he seems to be the Bible’s composite presentation.

Of course, Dever is right—each biblical atonement theory conveys part of Christ’s complex mission on earth. A complete understanding of Christ’s redeeming work is represented more accurately by viewing the different theories as harmonizing parts of the same song, rather than as solo melodies.

Eric Landry is executive editor of Modern Reformation and serves as senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.

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Eric Landry
Eric Landry is the chief content officer of Sola Media and former executive editor of Modern Reformation. He also serves as the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.
Thursday, March 1st 2018

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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