If the central moment in history is the Crucifixion/Resurrection of Jesus, and if we claim to follow that Jesus, it follows that we ought to have a pretty solid idea of why Jesus died and rose again. Anyone raised in Sunday School might answer, “For our sins” or “For our salvation.” Yes, that’s why. But what do these words mean? And, what did the Cross (when I say that, please include the Ressurection in your thinking — it’s to much to always say “the Crucifixion/Resurrection event complex”) mean? Why did Jesus come? Why did he die? Why did he rise from the dead?
Churchy types have suggested a variety of answers over the centuries. Collectively, these answers are called: THEORIES OF THE ATONEMENT. I’d like to describe only 3 of the biggies, and center on one of them. Let me say at the outset, that all three theories contain truth. We’ll never exhuast the riches of the atoning work of Christ, no matter how much we contemplate, theorize, or write. But that shouldn’t stop of from trying. Just because we can’t come to exhaustive truth, it doesn’t mean we can’t come to true truth.
Key idea: Jesus died and rose again to show God’s love, thereby influencing us to a life of love.
a.k.a., the Moral Influence Theory, the Subjective View
Proponent: Abelard, a monk
Example: The beautiful hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” flows from a Moral Example stream: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.”
Critique/Comments: The Moral Example Theory is true; but it can’t stand by itself. If this is ALL that is true of the Cross, it makes no sense. Was the horrific death on the Cross really God’s only option to show forth his love? Was it his only way to melt our hearts and change our ways? Leon Morris points out that, unless Christ’s death actually accomplished something beyond being an example of love, it’s as pointless as a man who sees a person about to drown, jumping into the water — not to save the drowing victim, but simply to drown with him.
This is the theory that’s winning the day in the postmodern, emerging church. Jesus loves us. Jesus proved it. Now we should love others too. Sacrificially.
It’s true, but it’s not enough truth to make the Cross make sense. The biggest drawback is that by making the moral example theory preeminent, you minimize the sin problem (which the Cross addresses), you minimize the alienation between humans and God, and thus, you open the door to universalism, and salvation by good works or love or world service. (Go here to read how Brian McLaren espouses this very thing, and Michael Horton challenges him on it.)
Key Idea: Christus Victor is Latin for Christ, the Victor. Through the Cross/Ressurrection of Jesus, God body slammed Satan, Sin, and Death, and now wears the championship belt in the cosmic conflict of the ages.
Leon Morris: “Because of their sin people rightly belong to Satan, the fathers reasoned. But God offered his son as a ransom, a bargain the evil one eagerly accepted. When, however, Satan got Christ down into hell he found that he could not hold him. On the third day Christ rose triumphant and left Satan without either his original prisoners or the ransom he had accepted in their stead. It did not need a profound intellect to see that God must have foreseen this, but the thought that God deceived the devil did not worry the fathers. than Satan as well as stronger. They even worked out illustrations like a fishing trip: The flesh of Jesus was the bait, the deity the fishhook. Satan swallowed the hook along with the bait and was transfixed.”
Later theologians rightly softened the “bait” analogy and took away the deceptive scheming of God. If Satan chooses to be self-deceived, so be it. The devil has been routed. Evil has been crushed at its source. Christ reigns supreme. He is head over all, the Kosmokrator, the Lord of the Universe, and the Cosmic Powerhouse.
a.k.a., The Atonement as Victory Theory, goes hand in hand with the Ransom Theory.
Proponents: most of the Church Fathers, Gustaf Aulen, my friend, Jonathan H.
Example: the rousing hymn, “Up from the Grave He Arose… with a mighty triumph o’er his foes / He arose a victor from the dark domain / and He lives forever with his saints to reign…”
Comments/Critique: This theory it is not only true, it has abundant testimony in Scripture. And, to me, it’s thrilling. I love the thought of Jesus my Champion. The only drawback I see, and I’d love to hear Jonathan on this one, is that it makes the Atonement a question of “Who’s Stronger?” It can (not that it necessarily does) bypass questions of righteousness… and make God the toughest guy on the block, in a “might makes right” sort of way.
3. SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT THEORY
Key idea: Christ died on the Cross as our substitute; he paid the penalty for our sins, so that God could be JUST and the JUSTIFIER of the person who believes in Jesus.
a.k.a., Vicarious Atonement.
Example: “I need no other argument / I need no other plea / It is enough that Jesus died, / And that he died for me.”
Comments/Critique: Only this theory makes all the other theories work. Jesus died for a REASON: to rescue us from sin by “being made sin for us.” To deny that is to deny the bulk of Scripture.
That’s why Subsitutionary Atonement is one of the marks of a faithful Christian. It is a non-negotiable, an essential… AND IT HAS BEEN UNDER ATTACK in the halls of religious academia for 100 years. That’s what made it a fundamental… a sine qua non of Christianity… during the early 1900’s in a debate now called the modernist/fundamentalist controversey.
Modernists denied the deity of Christ. They denied the supernatural elements of the faith. They denied a need for salvation (except from economic injustice) and they denied a Savior. They redefined Jesus as a moral example (theory 1) and rigorously denied Substitutionary Atonement.
Conservatives countered that only Substitionary Atonement respects the sinfulness of sin, the holiness of God, the alienation between us, and the need for redemption, propitiation, satisfaction of divine justice. In fact, to deny Substitutionary Atonement was to deny the Cross, and to deny the Cross was to deny Christ, and to deny Christ was to deny Christianity.
I agree. I have blogged a whole lot about Substitutionary Atonement… Click here for a sampling.
If we want to claim apostolic authority, we have to follow apostolic teaching… and the clearest, most concise summary of the gospel is SUBSTITUTIONARY:
“Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you–unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins [subsitutionary atonement] according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,” 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, NKJV.
I AM SO THANKFUL THAT JESUS TOOK MY SINS AWAY. I AM SO THANKFUL THAT HE PAID FOR THEM, IN FULL, ONCE FOR ALL. I WOULD HAVE NO HOPE, NO FREEDOM FROM GUILT AND SHAME, WITHOUT SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT.
This does not erase other theories, it puts them in context and gives them their meaning.
One hymn comes to mind that beautifully balances different theories of the atonement… and I LOVE IT. It’s been updated, and I love that one too. Here are the lyrics, with some underlining (I can’t help myself, I’m a teacher). And then some links to hear it sung. After all… theology (when you do it right) becomes doxology and doxology becomes love for the world.
Original Trinity Hymnal, #689
One day when heaven was filled with his praises,
One day when sin was as black as could be,
Jesus came forth to be born of a virgin—
Dwelt amongst men, my example is he! [Moral Example Theory]
Living, he loved me; dying, he saved me;
Buried, he carried my sins far away;
Rising, he justified freely, for ever:
One day he’s coming—O, glorious day!
One day they led him up Calvary’s mountain,
One day they nailed him to die on the tree;
Suffering anguish, despised and rejected:
Bearing our sins, my Redeemer is he! [Substitutionary Atonement!!!]
One day they left him alone in the garden,
One day he rested, from suffering free;
Angels came down o’er his tomb to keep vigil;
Hope of the hopeless, my Saviour is he!
One day the grave could conceal him no longer,
One day the stone rolled away from the door;
Then he arose, over death he had conquered;
Now is ascended, my Lord evermore! [Christus Victor!]
One day the trumpet will sound for his coming,
One day the skies with his glories will shine;
Wonderful day, my beloved ones bringing;
Glorious Saviour, this Jesus is mine!
(by Pastor Wilbur Chapman)
To sing along with the old hymn, and have a cross-cultural experience, click here.
To worship with the excellent updated Jeff Johnson version, click here.