INTRODUCTION

In Christendom there are many theories just to what the atonement means.  Is it a substitute?  Is there something else along with it that must be done so man can achieve eternal salvation?  These issues are often hotly contested, but is there one that is more biblical than the others?  This essay will focus describe the following theories:  Ransom to Satan theory, Recapitulation theory, Commercial theory, Moral influence theory, accident theory, and the governmental theory[1].  It will also go into detail on the Penal Substitution theory, and why it is the most biblical theory presented[2].  To understand these theories in a more accurate way we first must have an understanding as to what the atonement is.

 

ATONEMENT:  A BRIEF SYNOPSIS

The atonement of Christ is one that involved Christ death and is central to the Christian faith.  It can be said that in the atonement we find the essential nature of theology, because all other doctrines coalesce under this fundamental truth.  Without the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ there is no forgiveness of sin, and therefore there would be no Christianity.  The Apostle Paul states this very eloquently in 1 Corinthians 15:17 where he writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins[3].”  The atonement provided us with the perfect sacrifice to fulfill something that we could never dream of.  Millard Erickson writes in regards to this, “Here the doctrines of God, humanity, sin, and the person of Christ come together to define the human need and the provision that had to be made for that need[4].”

God has a law in place, and as sinful creatures we have broken that law.  The breaking of a law requires justice.  Jesus Christ stepped in on our behalf so we could be saved.  This teaching is very clear in scripture as seen in 2 Corinthians 5:21.  That passage of scripture states, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God[5].”  The atonement took the righteousness of Christ, and it was imputed to us when we come to faith in him.  To this regard Walter Elwell writes, “The New Testament emphasizes his death, and it is no accident that the cross has come to be accepted as the symbol of the Christian faith of that words like crux or crucial have the significance they do.  The cross is absolutely central to salvation, and this is distinctive of Christianity[6].”

 

 

RANSOM TO SATAN THEORY

This view was put forth by the early church father Origen.  According to the theory, the death of Christ was a ransom that was paid to Satan because we are in his kingdom because of sin[7].  Origin states in his commentary on Matthew, “But to whom did He give His soul as a ransom for many? Surely not to God. Could it, then, be to the Evil One? For he had us in his power, until the ransom for us should be given to him, even the life (or soul) of Jesus, since he (the Evil One) had been deceived, and led to suppose that he was capable of mastering that soul, and he did not see that to hold Him involved a trial of strength (thasanon) greater than he was equal to[8].”  There were not many other church fathers who held this view, but the great early church theologian Augustine did[9].

To better understand this theory the concept of a prisoner of war may be helpful.  In war when an opposing Army captures an enemy soldier they await a ransom to release him.  This may come in the form of money, other captives, or a peace treaty, but there is some kind of ransom.  In this theory Satan is the opposing Army that has captures enemy soldiers.  Through the death of Christ the ransom is paid for our release[10].

Though this theory makes sense from a philosophical viewpoint there are some issues from a theological perspective.  There are many passages in scripture that speak about the righteousness of God being offended by our sin. One such verse is Deuteronomy 24:16 which states, “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin[11].”  Another is found in Isaiah 64:6 which reads, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags, we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sin sweeps us away[12].”  It is clear that it is God who is offended and must be made whole.

The concept of the theory does not find support in scripture.  Additionally it gives Satan much more power than what he really has[13].  It ignores God’s justice in regards to sin.  This view also ignores all the texts in scripture that speak of Christ’s death as the propitiation for our sins such as 1 John 2:2.  That passage of scripture states, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world[14].”

The cross was used a sign of judgment against Satan not a ransom to him[15].  Overall this theory has little support historically and biblically and must be seen as false.

 

 

RECAPITULATION THEORY

The recapitulation theory is one that finds much support in patristic literature, and especially that of Irenaeus.  According the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church Irenaeus the atonement as “both as the restoration of fallen humanity to communion with God through the obedience of Christ and as the summing-up of the previous revelations of God in past ages in the Incarnation[16].”  In this theory Christ went through all the stages of the life of Adam.  This experience included experiencing sin.

In his timeless work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes,” It was necessary, therefore, that the Lord, coming to the lost sheep, and making recapitulation of so comprehensive a dispensation, and seeking after His own handiwork, should save that very man who had been created after His image and likeness, that is, Adam, filling up the times of His condemnation, which had been incurred through disobedience,—[times] “which the Father had placed in His own power[17].”  In the book of 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul describes the Lord Jesus Christ as the new Adam who completed what the first failed to do.  The passage in question is 1 Corinthians 15:45 which states, “And so it is written, the first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit[18].”  Christ and Adam were created by supernatural means, were tempted by Satan, but one succumbed and the other overcame sin and was crucified.  Through the life, death, burial, and resurrection humanity now has a second chance[19].

This theory is very interesting and its importance within the context of church history cannot be understated.  The theory was developed in an effort to combat the Gnostics who were gaining much influence[20].  It brought to mind the reality of the incarnation, and what had to take place for the salvation of mankind.

Though it did much to emphasize the humanity of Christ there was not much emphasis on his death.  This is important because without the death of Christ we are still in sin.  This is emphasized by Hebrews 9:22 which states, “In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness[21]”.  To be fair the priority of Irenaeus was to emphasize that Christ was flesh and blood and not just a spirit.  Another part of the theory states that Christ experienced everything Adam did including sin and old age[22].  The scriptures tell us that Christ was sinless, but the theory states he experienced the weight of the sin on the cross.  How about old age?  The Genesis account informs us that Adam lived to be over 900 years old, but we can deduct from scripture that Christ died when he was around 33 years of age.  Tough there are some flaws in the theory it was vital in combating the Gnostics, but it is not the biblical option of the atonement.

 

COMMERCIAL THEORY

This theory is also known as the Anselmic theory as it was set forth by Anselm in the 11th century.  Through sin God was robbed of his honor and a resolution had to be reached that would require satisfaction or punishment of the sinner[23].  It was this conflict between God wanting to punish and the love of God that caused the God-man to suffer and make satisfaction for the sinner.  The 19th century theologian states, “while the love of God pleads for the sparing of the guilty; that this conflict of divine attributes is eternally reconciled by the voluntary sacrifice of the God-man, who bears in virtue of the dignity of his person the intensively infinite punishment of sin, which must otherwise have been suffered extensively and eternally by sinners; that this suffering of the God-man presents to the divine majesty an exact equivalent for the deserved sufferings of the elect; and that, as the result of this satisfaction of the divine claims, the elect sinners are pardoned and regenerated[24].”

Christ was obedient to the wish of his Father, and through his death was rewarded.  He then rewarded this gift to the sinners of the world.  In fulfilling this service on the cross he went beyond the call of duty, and this brought honor to God[25].  Christ was sinless, and as a result did not deserve death.  Therefore his death was the satisfaction that God needed to forgive sin.

A primary scriptural passage for3 the theory is John 10:18 which states, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. I have received this command from My Father[26].”  This passage, along with logic, were the primary drivers behind the theory that Anselm developed.  The theory was widely accepted and came to replace the Ransom to Satan Theory in the medieval church[27].  However no theory about the atonement is complete if all the elements are not presented[28].

The mercy of God is greatly emphasized in the Commercial theory, and sometimes this is at the expense of His justice and holiness[29].  There is little emphasis on the suffering hat the savior endured to save his people.  The Commercial theory was also steeped in the Roman Catholic penitential system.  This is best summed up by Anselm himself who stated, “in making satisfaction for his sin, should man honor God by conquering the devil with the greatest possible difficulty[30].”

 

MORAL INFLUENCE THEORY

The Moral Influence theory was put forth by Abelard, and has become the focus of modern liberal protestant groups.  The theory was originally set forth by Abelard as an answer to the Commercial theory that was previously discussed.  It is very interesting as it teaches that the death of Christ did not expiate for any sin[31].  The death of Christ did not bring about repentance, but made it possible for the hearts of sinners to be softened.  This softening of heart, or heart of stone turned to flesh, is what would lead the sinner to repent.  The early 20th century work titled named The Fundamentals states,” According to this, the sole mission of Christ was to reveal the love of God in a way so moving as to melt the heart and induce men to forsake sin[32].”

The theory itself is plagued with problems, and ignores the teaching of scripture that Christ did indeed come to save the people from their sin.  The death of Christ, though an act of love, was a natural act of him becoming human[33].  Scripture is clear that this is not the case, because Matthew 20:28 confirms that the death of Christ was substitutionary in nature.  That passage of scripture states, “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many[34].”  It was his death that justified us in front of a God whose holiness was transgressed, and it was not merely a demonstration of love that gives us a soft heart.

 

ACCIDENT THEORY

The Accident is a fairly modern view in that it was developed in the 19th century by Albert Schweitzer.  Schweitzer taught that Christ became obsessed with himself being the Messiah, and was killed in the process of preaching about the coming kingdom[35].

The problem with this theory is that it treats the death of Christ as a mistake.  It relegates Christ to that of a good teacher that was executed for his cause.  This theory directly contradicts scripture.  There were many occasions where Jesus predicted his own death (Matt. 16:21; 17:22; 20:17-19; 26:1-5).  Scripture speaks that his death was the plan of God (Isa. 53:4-6; Psalm 22:14-18).

 

GOVERNMENTAL THEORY

This theory served as a median between the views of Socinus and the view of the Protestant reformers.  It states that the death of Christ served as a penal example and made a token payment for sin through his death on the cross[36].  God accepted this token payment, set aside the requirements of His own law, and forgave sinners because “principle of his government was upheld[37].”

This view had some followers in the 16th century, but it has its problems.  Where in scripture do we read that God sets aside His law for a payment of this type?  Some may point to Levitical law, but even then the people were still under the requirements of the law.  In his critique of this theory the 19th century theologian Charles Hodge stated, “And the sufferings of Christ, if incurred in the discharge of his mission of mercy, and not judicially inflicted in execution of the penalty of the law, had no more tendency to show God’s abhorrence of sin than the sufferings of the martyrs[38].”  God is unchangeable, but in this theory his changes his punishment for transgression of the law in that he forgives without full payment.  With its flaws it did try to overcome the error of the Example Theory that is not discussed in this essay.  Its fatal flaw is that it does not uphold scriptures view that the death of the Messiah was substitutionary in nature.  God also cannot change his mind and go back on the law that he established[39].

 

 

PENAL SUBSTITUTION

The substitution theory of atonement views the death of Christ as something that happened in the place of sinners.  By dying Christ took the place of those that sinned against God, and through his death sins of the sinner are expiated[40].  Since he died in our place his righteousness is then imputed to us when we believe by faith.  Regarding this John Bunyan wrote, “Now, if thou wouldst inherit righteousness, and so sanctification possess in body, soul, and spirit, then thou must to Jesus fly, as one ungodly first; and so by him crave pardon for thy sin which thou hast loved, and hast lived in; for this cannot at all forgiven be, for any righteousness that is in thee.[41]”          The theory itself has a great deal of biblical support as Christ is mentioned as substitute in 2 Corinthians 5:21.  1 Peter 2:24 speaks of Christ bearing the sins of others on the cross.  This idea is mentioned again in Hebrews 9:28.  The prophet Isaiah spoke off the Messiah’s death as being substitutionary in nature (Isa. 53:4-6).  The words of Christ himself in Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 speak of the fact that he came to die for sinners.  To take this theme a bit further the Apostle Paul uses specific Greek verbs in his writing.  The preposition used is huper and means “for’.  This specific verb is used in Galatians 3:13, 1 Timothy 2:6, 2 Corinthians 5:21, and 1 Peter 3:18 to signify that Christ died on behalf of sinners[42].

CONCLUSION

There is no shortage to the theories of atonement that have been developed over the ages.  The ones contained in this essay just scratch the surface, but it is vitally important to understand just what the atonement is.  The mission of Christ to save his people can be best be summed up with the Penal Substitution theory.  This theory has the most biblical support, and the exegesis of the supporting passages lend credence to the conclusion.  The atonement tells the story of the second person of the Trinity becoming man, walking among us, being tempted as we are, and dying in place for us.  To understand it is important to know just who He is.

 

 

 

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

Anselm. St. Anselm:  PROSLOGIUM; MONOLOGIUM; AN APPENDIX IN BEHALF OF THE FOOL BY GAUNILON; AND CUR DEUS HOMO. Translated by Sidney Norton Deane. Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 1939.

Berry, John D. The Lexham Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Substitution.”

Bunyan, John. One Thing is Needful. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2014.

Duffield, Guy P., and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave. Foundations of Pentecostal Theology. Los Angeles, CA: Life Bible College, 1983.

Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Elwell, Walter. The Portable Seminary. Edited by David Horton. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2006.

Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014.

Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998.

———. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

———. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

Ferguson, E. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Edited by Walter Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Ferguson, Everett. Church History:  rom Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Hervey, A.c. Exposition and Homiletics. New York, NY: Funk &​ Wagnalls, 1994.

Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012.

Lloyd-jones, D. Martyn. Great Doctrines of the Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1996.

Shedd, William G.t. Dogmatic Theology. 3rd ed. Edited by Alan W. Gomes. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&​r Publishing, 2003.

Strong, A.h. Systematic Theology. Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907.

Torrey, R.A., and A.c. Dixon, eds. The Fundamentals:  A Testimony to the Truth. Los Angeles, CA: Bible Institute of Los Angeles, 1917.

 

Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 455). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

Lloyd-jones, D. Martyn. Great Doctrines of the Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1996.

Menzies, Allen, ed. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. 5th ed. New York, NY: The Christian Literature Company, 1897.

Pink, A.w. Studies of the Atonement. Logos Bible Software, 2013.

Strong, A.h. Systematic Theology. Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907.

 

[1] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 336.

[2] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 732.

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:17 (New International Version).

[4] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 714-715.

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:21 (English Standard Version).

[6] Walter Elwell, The Portable Seminary, ed. David Horton (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2006), 135.

[7] A.w. Pink, Studies of the Atonement (Logos Bible Software, 2013), 151.

[8] Allen Menzies, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 5th ed (New York, NY: The Christian Literature Company, 1897), 494.

[9] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 333.

[10] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 581.

[11] Deuteronomy 24:16 (New International Version).

[12] Isaiah 64:6 (New International Version).

[13] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 581.

[14] 1 John 2:2 (English Standard Version).

[15] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 335.

[16] Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). In The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev., p. 1380). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

[17] Irenaeus of Lyons. (1885). Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 455). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

[18] 1 Corinthians 15:45 (King James Version).

[19] E. Ferguson, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 992.

[20] Everett Ferguson, Church History:  rom Christ to the Pre-Reformation, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 105.

[21] Hebrews 9:22 (New Living Translation).

[22] Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 129.

[23] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 333.

[24] A.h. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 797.

[25] D. Martyn Lloyd-jones, Great Doctrines of the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1996), 312.

[26] John 10:18 (Holman Christian Standard Bible).

[27] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 729.

[28] A.c. Hervey, Exposition and Homiletics (New York, NY: Funk &​ Wagnalls, 1994), 43.

[29] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 334.

[30] Anselm, St. Anselm:  PROSLOGIUM; MONOLOGIUM; AN APPENDIX IN BEHALF OF THE FOOL BY GAUNILON; AND CUR DEUS HOMO, trans. Sidney Norton Deane (Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 1939), 258.

[31] Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology (Los Angeles, CA: Life Bible College, 1983), 185.

[32] R.a. Torrey and A.c. Dixon, eds., The Fundamentals:  A Testimony to the Truth (Los Angeles, CA: Bible Institute Of Los Angeles, 1917), 65.

[33] A.h. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 733.

[34] Matthew 20:28 (New International Version).

[35] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 334.

[36] William G.t. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed, ed. Alan W. Gomes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&​r Publishing, 2003), 965.

[37] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 335.

[38] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012), 529.

[39] D. Martyn Lloyd-jones, Great Doctrines of the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1996), 314.

[40] John D. Berry, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Substitution.”

[41] John Bunyan, One Thing is Needful (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2014), 741.

[42] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 337.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s