The Atonement: What is it and Why Does it Matter?
While justification and salvation are clear doctrines that answer the question of what is gained by the death and resurrection of Christ, the doctrine of atonement tries to answer the question, “Why did Christ die and how did such a death actually address and deal with the problem of sin?” When we turn to Scripture with these questions, what we get in return is a plethora of pictures of what happened at the cross. The systemization of these pictures is most commonly called the “theories of atonement.” Below are short and simple descriptions of the three most common theories followed by a list of strengths and weaknesses. While each of the models presented here begins with Scripture, each picture’s weaknesses arise when and where theologians attempt to fill in the gaps where Scripture remains silent. The Scriptural pictures of atonement offer every Christian comfort and hope against sin through the power of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Known by a handful of names such as the Latin theory, penal substitution, and vicarious atonement, the presentation of Christ’s work as a substitute for our sin is one of the most commonly held pictures of atonement. The core of this model rests on humanity’s violation of God’s command to be Holy as laid out in the doctrine of the Law. By sinning, we have broken the Law, and a just punishment falls upon us, namely death (Genesis 2; Rom. 6:23). This situation leaves God unsatisfied (Ez. 33:11). As a merciful and loving Creator, God does not desire that we die but that we live. God mercifully sends His Son as a substitute to stand in our place. By His innocence and fulfillment of the Law, Christ makes the cross an act of exchange as He takes on and becomes our sin(s) and declares us blameless (Is. 53:5-6.)
Strengths: There are many strengths in Substitution. Firstly, sin is approached as a serious issue and not something God deals with arbitrarily. Sin has separated humanity from God and earned death. Christ is viewed in His full humanity not only because He is capable of dying, but also because He acts as a suitable representative and substitute for all mankind (1 Cor. 15:45). The God-man is not only willing but capable of dying as an innocent sacrifice in place of guilty flesh. Lastly, by focusing on the penalty of death, the Substitution picture directly answers the question “why did Jesus die?” To save us from the punishment of death we rightly deserve.
Weaknesses: There are some weaknesses to this theory which do not discredit its merit, but instead leave some questions. Most prominently, within the Substitution picture, the resurrection is not presented as part of Christ's atoning work, which seemingly ignores verses like Romans 4:25 and Romans 6:4. The heavy emphasis on Christ’s active obedience or His doing of the Law can make the Law look like the template of salvation. Yet Scripture makes it very clear that it is the Gospel alone that saves us (Gal. 3:21-22; Rom. 3:19-20). This angle of presentation can also make it sound like Christ died for God’s sake rather than for the sake of sinners. In some presentations of Substitution, God’s wrath is emphasized above His mercy. This has led some critics to paint God as an angry and abusive father who finds pleasure in the death of His Son.
Another scriptural picture of atonement rests on the victory of Christ over sin, death, and the devil. While the primary issue dealt with in Substitution was the offense humanity has made against God, Christus Victor focuses on humanity’s bondage and slavery to sin and death (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 3:22). God, in both His love for us (John 3:16) and His jealousy (Ex. 20:5), sends Christ to conquer these foes and free His creation. Christ conquers sin, death, and the devil not with power or force but by death and resurrection. Christ takes on the sin of the world and dies at the hand of the Law. However, death cannot hold the righteous God-man, and on the third day, as Christ rises from the dead, sin and death lose their power and are defeated. Anyone who is united to Christ no longer dies the death he deserves, but instead dies the death of Christ; and with Christ, will rise from the dead. In this way, the victor model is heavily sacramental as it relies on those things which join us to Christ in faith: the proclaimed word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper (Rom. 6:5, 1 Cor. 15:20-22).
Strengths: The Victory model is helpful for preaching as it captures the pain and suffering of this sinful world and declares the sinner free through faith in Christ. It offers hope to those who have been broken by the condemnation of the Law. The victor model rests heavily on the resurrection of Christ (Rom. 4:25). Christ accomplishes victory by His resurrection, and our freedom rests on our resurrection with Him. The divine nature of Christ is in full focus as the death of Christ is the death of God. The grave cannot hold Christ because of His perfect, divine nature. Like Substitution, this model answers the question, “Why did Christ die?” by dealing head-on with the penalty of death. Where Substitution satisfies the decree of death, Victory crushes its sting and power to enslave (1 Cor. 15:55).
Weaknesses: The Victory model gives power and authority over to sin, death, and the devil, and such power can make the struggle between God and the devil seem dualistic - like the devil is powerful enough to challenge God. In Christus Victor, Christ’s death can be viewed as a ransom paid to these powers in exchange for humanity’s victory. This ransom has sometimes been described as a “bait and switch” against Satan, which would leave God in the compromising position of acting deceptively. Lastly, the Victory model leaves the following question unanswered: “If God wanted to destroy death why does He ordain it as a punishment for sin (Gen.2; 1 Cor. 15:56)?”
The final popular picture of atonement is called the moral exemplar theory or Abelardian view named after the early proponent, Peter Abelard (1079-1142). This view demonstrates that the death and resurrection of Christ is the greatest example of God’s love. This theory rests on verses such as Romans 5:8 and 1 John 4:19. The theory goes on to propose that this love enables humanity to love God in return and follow the moral example of Christ. By following Christ’s example, humanity has access to a life which can please God.
Strengths: There is only one strength to the moral example position, and that is its emphasis on God’s love towards His creation. It is this love which motivates Christ to take on death even though He was innocent.
Weaknesses: The moral example theory tends to frame justification within works righteousness or semi-Pelagianism by claiming that one great act of grace, in turn, enables humanity to perfectly follow the Law. Here, the Law becomes weak and loses its sting, not because death has been covered or conquered by Christ, but because doers of the Law do not need to be punished. In addition, by reducing the sting of the Law and focusing primarily on moral behavior, this theory also struggles to explain original sin. There is no need for imputed righteousness and therefore no imputation of sin onto Christ which devalues and questions the purpose of His death. While there is clearly a scriptural basis for the acts of Christ in this theory, the moral picture of atonement quickly departs from what the whole of Scripture says concerning the accomplishments of Christ’s death and resurrection.
It has been common practice to isolate the atonement schemes from one another, sometimes to the extreme of insisting they are incompatible and only one can be correct. This is problematic since each presentation - particularly Substitution and Victory - are both thoroughly rooted in Scriptural descriptions of the work of Christ. When working together, the pictures of atonement provide a colorful and thorough view of the consequences of sin, for sin does not just present one problem but many. Sin destroys the relationship between God and man, sin brings death, sin captures the will and turns it against God, sin destroys the whole creation, and the list goes on. Yet the work of Christ solves for every problem of sin, and as such, Scripture gives us a rich and full picture of the atonement that demonstrates endless love, sets weary captives free, and satisfies God’s righteousness.