Fundamentals #3: Substitutionary Atonement

jesuscrossToday’s post is part 3 in a series on some biblical fundamentals. If you want a little context, scroll down and read the previous posts, especially the first one.  Thanks.

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.

So each of these theories has its beauties. If you want more, or to read about other theories, go here or here or here.   Here’s a synopsis of three:

jesussinfulwoman1. THE MORAL EXAMPLE THEORY.

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.)

pantokrator2. CHRISTUS VICTOR

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.


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.

crossgrunewaldProponents: Traditional, Historic Christianity, especially Protestants and conservatives.

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.


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.


10 thoughts on “Fundamentals #3: Substitutionary Atonement

  1. THANK YOU so much for this overview of Fundamental #3, Substitutionary Atonement!!! How I praise our God for your CLEAR teaching of the Truth of God and the fundamentals of our faith.

    Your teaching on legalism has reached WA via my children. Prayerfully, it will be understood and embraced! I thank you so very much for giving me such clarity to share with others.

  2. Thanks. I found theories of the atonement fascinating in college. Haven’t heard “One Day …” for a long time, and hadn’t caught so much doctrine in it till you pointed it out. Do I give away my age when I vote for the Korean(?) choir?

  3. Praise God! Hallelujah! Glory in the highest! Thank you for this great reminder.

    Sent from my mobile using FeedM8

  4. As James D. G. Dunn puts it, …”substitution tells only half the story…Paul’s teaching is not that Christ dies ‘in the place of’ others so that they escape death. It is rather that Christ’s sharing their death makes it possible for them to share his death.” This is the other part of the profound reality of Jesus’ death–we literally follow in Christ’s footsteps (through suffering); through this we are being changed into his image on a daily basis.
    I think you may want to read more of–or at least a closer reading of–Brian McLaren (I recommend “A New Kind of Christian”). He may seem to “champion” the “moral-example” theory of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, but this view is only part of his “orthodox” (as he plainly states about his own beliefs regarding Jesus) theology. He doesn’t have one without the other, but he does draw attention to what is needed more within our western “christian” culture. We have the “substitution” theory down pat, but the problem is that substitution is only half the story. Without our joining in Christ’s death (a progressive process), it isn’t much more than a selfish (knowingly or not) escape plan from the world of pain and suffering.

  5. Great stuff Bill.

    Theories of the Atonement remind me of the Gospels in the NT. How many Gospels did God use to tell the Christ story? Four! Why? Because each Gospel addresses a unique audience, highlighting critical / pertinent aspects of God in Christ! Which Gospel is the true one? All of them!

    The Gospels are multi-faceted, as are atonement theories (though some tell the whole stroy better than others). Part of my problem with Atonement Theories is the way they are described. Aulen’s Christus Victor sounds nothing like the way others depict it (here’s a great version of it ~ The same goes for Ransom, Moral Influence, Satisfaction, and Judicial theories.

    Each Atonement Theory depicted in Scripture addresses a particular aspect of the fall out of sin. For example ~ sin alienates us from God, Reconciliation Theory heals that divide. Sin provokes the wrath of God, Penal Substitution appeases God’s wrath and accredits righteousness to the sinner. Sin has cosmic consequences, Christ Victor puts all things under the rule of Christ, the Triumphant One.

    I’ve got a great chart that aligns: the consequence of sin, the human need left unmet, and the theory of atonement that heals it. It’s a great tool for sharing the Gospel with people according to their unique life situation (very much like Four Gospels being deployed to unveil God in Christ for various audiences).

    My view is this ~ in the same way that we must not pit one Gospel over the other, we must not pit one theory as the “true” one and others as “untrue.” Don’t get me wrong, some theories are more complete than others, but way too many straw man depictions exist in the way people understand other theories.

    Ad fontes (to the source)! Let’s let Scripture drive our understanding of sin and its fallout, as well as Redemption and the Atonement Theories that right all that’s gone wrong in us, and in our world.

    Fascinating stuff!

    • Yes to all of them… that’s my point. What raises my shackles, however, is when penal substitution is attacked or denied. There is NO gospel (according to Paul’s def in 1 Cor 15) without it. It is “another gospel” and so “no gospel.”

  6. It is the rule of God in Gen. 9:5 Niv which conclusively limits the death of any man’s life taken by bloodshed not be or become of any direct benefit to others. Therefore the doctrine of substitutionary atonement which proposes that the crucifixion of Jesus is a direct benefit to others is an error and by definition is indeed another gospel. For substitutionary atonement is in direct contempt of God’s set purpose for each man.

    • 5 And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. (Genesis 9:5, NIV).

      So… from this you’re getting a denial of substitutionary atonement? Thanks for visiting and commenting, but I respectfully and completely disagree with you. In addition, the idea of substitution stretches from one end of Scripture to the other.

  7. 1 Cor. 2:8 is a direct complication to your cite of support “from one end of the Scripture to the other.” The problem surfaces by Paul having stated that the true reason for Jesus crucifixion was not discoverable from any source prior to Jesus’ being crucified. Jesus’ would NOT have been crucified if the true reason for his crucifixion was for the purpose of perfecting the theory of substitutionary atonement. For as you have admitted, and I do not disagree, that the theoretical assumptive of substitutionary atonement was a quantity of of knowledge reasonably deducted from the Scriptures known prior to Jesus’ crucifixion. But the fact is true that since this knowledge did exist prior to Jesus’ crucifixion. That established fact also rules it to be unreasonable, by that fact, that the crucifixion of Jesus could NOT have perfected any theoretical assumptive evident from any source prior to his crucifixion. If may, but will any way, point out something else to you by what you do cite for corroboration. Regarding that Paul’s statement generally accepted as authentic relative to inspiration derived from the Holy Spirit of God and as an act of revelation by that same spirit. Paul could NOT support the doctrine of substitutionary atonement without also compromising everything he ever wrote since that doctrine, as you admit and I agree, existed prior to Jesus’ crucifixion. Either Paul is exactly right in 1 Cor. 2:8 or you are by the evidence you do cite exactly wrong. For by your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned. Mt. 12:37
    Regarding the oath of God, “And from EACH man too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.” Are you in the classification, by God, of EACH man too? Yes or No?

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