In this essay our subject builds on the last two. Our last two studies have dealt with man and his sin, and with the person of Jesus. The first established our human sin problem. And the second established that Jesus as both God and man is worthy and able to save us from sin and death. In order to consider how it is that Jesus became the solution to our sin problem, we are going to study several so-called atonement theories of Christ.
As we saw in the earlier studies, sin has broken the love relationship between God and man. We human beings, by our sinfulness, have alienated ourselves from God. Rightfully, we should do something to mend the broken relationship, because we are the ones who sinned and broke it. But we are not capable of mending it. Our sin renders us helpless.
Therefore, God in his mercy did something about it. He took it upon himself to re-establish the relationship by the sacrifice of his Son on the cross. English speaking theologians, searching for a word to represent this process, invented one. It is the word “atonement.”
At first glance that term appears to be one of those big, intimidating theological words that we hate. But actually it is simply three little words put together, at-one-ment. Thus we talk about the atonement of Christ. Atonement is the means by which God makes us one with himself again. That is, it makes possible the restoration of our relationship to him.
Now the Bible itself has a number of words that are used to convey what God is doing in atonement. For example, in the Old Testament, there is a Hebrew word that is used in relation to animal sacrifices. It means “to cover” in the sense of protection or concealment. The idea is that the blood of animal sacrifices covered the sins of persons making the sacrifices. Of course, in the New Testament, it is the blood of Christ that brings about this result.
In the New Testament, however, the whole matter is further developed. For example there we find a Greek word that means “to reconcile.” The idea of this word is that the enmity or alienation between God and man is removed.
Another extremely important New Testament term is one that means “to propitiate,” “expiate,” or “render mercy.” Some English translations (e.g., the KJV) use “propitiate” to translate the Greek word, and some (e.g., the RSV) use “expiate.” Now, either English word is a correct rendering of the Greek. The problem is that neither English word expresses the full meaning of the Greek term; and certain theologians find fault with the theological implications of propitiation.
Propitiation refers to sacrifice. The idea is that our sinfulness has offended the honor or justice of God. And the sacrifice of Christ on the cross satisfies, that is propitiates, God’s offended justice.
That is orthodox theology. But it raises a theological problem for some interpreters because in the Greco-Roman culture the Greek term (when used to mean propitiation) often was used to express the pagan idea of offering a sacrifice for the crude purpose of appeasing an angry, vengeful God, or of “buying off the God.”
Of course this is not what the New Testament is saying about the sacrifice of Jesus. The New Testament idea of propitiation is a satisfaction of the honor of God, which has been offended by man’s sin. But there is a significant difference between the pagan and Christian concepts. The difference is this. The New Testament idea is that God himself is making the offering in Christ; it is God who is making the satisfaction, not sinful humanity. Therefore there is no hint of human appeasement of an angry God. On the contrary, a compassionate God is reaching out to humanity in mercy.
The English term “expiation” on the other hand means “to forgive”. Thus both propitiation (satisfaction) and expiation (forgiveness) are involved.
Still another important New Testament word means “to set free upon receipt of a ransom,” or “to redeem.” Here the idea is that man not only is estranged from God in sin, but he also is a captive to sin. He needs to be set free. That is the meaning of redemption. Redemption through Christ sets the captive free.
Now, we want to move to the various theories of the atonement that have been offered through the centuries. In general they are based on the concepts we have seen in these biblical terms. I will take an historical approach, giving you the major theories in the order in which they appeared historically. The first that we shall consider is one of the earliest and one of the most interesting, namely the second-century recapitulation theory of Irenaeus. He was born in Asia Minor sometime between AD 115-142 and was reared in Smyrna. He moved to Lyons, France and became bishop there in 177. He died about 200.
In the recapitulation theory, Christ is a new Adam (I Cor. 15:45-50); and in him the history of the old Adam was repeated, although in the opposite direction. That is, Christ “recapitulated” in himself the stages of Adam’s fall. In other words, he reversed the process, going up step by step, as it were, the ladder down which Adam descended. As a man, Christ is all that Adam should have been, had Adam not succumbed to temptation. As one scholar put it,
Adam was formed from the virgin soil, and Christ came to the world through Mary, the virgin; the Fall of man took place through the disobedience of a woman, and the obedience of another woman was the occasion for his restoration; Adam was tempted in Paradise, and Jesus in the desert; through a tree did death enter into the world, and through the tree of the cross has life been given unto us. (Gonzalez, Christian Thought Vol. I, p. 169f.).
A second early theory was the third-century ransom theory of Origen. It is called that, because Origen stressed the need for redemption. Origen’s dates are AD 185-254. He was a disciple of Clement of Alexandria and a member of the famous Alexandrian School.
According to Origen, man was under bondage to Satan because of his sin. God wanted man out of Satan’s clutches, so Jesus offered himself to Satan as a ransom. Satan accepted the ransom, because he believed that this would bring the Son of God under his dominion. But Satan was wrong. He couldn’t hold the sinless Son of God, who burst the bonds of sin and death by his resurrection.
A third important theory of the atonement was the eleventh-century satisfaction theoryof Anselm. Anselm lived from AD 1033-1109. He was the Archbishop of Canterbury and the first of the great scholastic theologians. According to Anselm God created Adam to be righteous. But Adam, through willful disobedience, sinned and refused God’s purpose. Sin, therefore, in Anslem’s view was the lack of righteousness that we humans were created to give to God, but which we refused to give him.
In other words humanity owes God righteousness through obedience. But because of our disobedience, God’s honor is offended; and God must (because of his holy character) either act in punishment or otherwise satisfy his own honor. That is, God cannot simply ignore human disobedience. He must satisfy his personal honor either by punishing the offenders, or by somehow making the satisfaction himself. God chose to do the latter. The Son of God became incarnate; and as the sinless God-Man, voluntarily sacrificed himself in death. This act, says Anselm, deserved reward. But since the God-Man needed no reward, his act produced merit that could be used for the salvation of sinful humans.
A fourth theory is twelfth-century moral influence theory of Abelard. Abelard lived from AD 1079-1142. He was a French scholastic, who taught at Notre Dame. Abelard’s theory is quite simple. In his view God loves man so much that he simply forgives man’s sin by divine decree. Thus there is no need for a deliverance from the devil, or for a satisfaction of God’s honor. The only obstacle to forgiveness is the sinner’s own hardness of heart.
In this theory Christ died on the cross in order to demonstrate his great love for humanity, and to convince humans to repent and accept God’s love. His purpose in dying was not to satisfy God’s honor or justice. It was simply to express God’s love. The idea in God’s mind, according to Abelard, was to get human beings to see how much God loves them, which would convince us to stop sinning as a response to God’s love.
A fifth important theory is the sixteenth-century theory, the penal satisfaction Theory of Calvin. Calvin lived from AD 1509-1564. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin modified Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory in a significant way. Instead of placing the emphasis on the merit earned by Christ on the cross, Calvin placed it on the punishment inflicted on Christ on the cross.
In Calvin’s view Christ’s death is accepted by God as our punishment. Christ becomes our substitute. That is, he bears the punishment that we deserve to bear because of God’s “outraged divine justice.” This substitutionary concept is called in theological circles a vicarious atonement, because the word “vicarious” means “substitutionary.” In Calvin’s view, this bearing of punishment was the primary purpose of the incarnation.
Another form of the satisfaction theory, and a sixth overall, is the seventeenth-century governmental theory of Hugo Grotius. Grotius lived from 1583-1645. He was a famous Dutch jurist and historian. In this theory, God is not personally offended by our sins, which he chooses to forgive freely. Rather, it is God’s moral law that we transgress when we sin. And God accepts the death of Christ as a satisfaction of the broken impersonal, moral law. Grotius also suggested that Jesus’ death was an example of the punishment we sinners deserve; and thus it serves as a deterrent to all of us.
A seventh and final theory is the twentieth-century racial theory of Olin A. Curtis. Curtis was a Methodist theologian at the turn of the 20th century. Curtis laid stress on the end result of atonement, namely, a new human race whose members are holy as God is holy. In this view, individual people are not as important as the new race-as-a-whole. That is not to say that individuals are unimportant; but God is creating a race of holy people, not just a mass of redeemed individuals.
Therefore Jesus Christ is a Race-Man as well as a God-Man. He suffered the precise penalty of the human race–death, though he was not himself guilty of sin. And his death made possible the new race that is capable of pleasing God, something that the present, sinful race cannot do. This new race began with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. And it will be completed at the final resurrection of the bodies of believers.