What does Scripture teach regarding the Atonement?

What does Scripture teach regarding the Atonement?

by Pastor Dave

Christian’s throughout history have been known as the “people of the cross.” This one event stands at the center of all biblical and human history and is the most important event that has ever occurred. This post seeks to answer the question of “What did the atonement accomplish?” and “What was God’s primary purpose in the atoning death of His Son?” By reviewing the two most prevalent views of the atonement this post will show that the Penal Substitution Theory of the atonement is the most biblical position.  To support this thesis, this post will analyze the strengths and weaknesses of these two views of the atonement and then will analyze relevant scripture passages and theological writings on the topic.

Christus Victor

The Christus Victor or Ransom to Satan Theory of the atonement is the classic position from church history. First held by the Alexandrian theologian Origen, proponents of this view are Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Tertullian, Augustine, and Athanasius. Gustaf Aulen explains the Christus Victor view,

“the idea of the Atonement as a Divine conflict and victory; Christ— Christus Victor— fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the ’tyrants’ under which mankind is in bondage and suffering.” [1]

The view holds that Christ’s work in the atonement primarily deals with His defeat over darkness, Satan, demons, sin, death, and the curse of the law. The Ransom to Satan theory is a further more specifically defined part of the Christus Victor view in which Jesus is the ransom paid to Satan to liberate humanity from his clutches. The bible verse most often quoted to support this view is Matthew 20:28, “even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” At the heart of the Christus Victor and Ransom to Satan theory is the belief that through the atonement Christ defeated Satan.

In the early church as the Christus Victor view became prevalent the natural question was who was the ransom paid to? Origen answered,

“To whom was it paid? Certainly not to God; can it then be to the evil one? For he had power over us until the ransom given to him on our behalf, namely the life of Jesus; and he was deceived thinking that he could keep his soul in his power.” [2]

Origen didn’t stop there though, he went on to further propose that the goodness of Jesus was too much for the devil to handle so he let Jesus go, losing his ransom payment.[3] Origen see’s Jesus as outwitting the devil. Gregory of Nyssa added to this theory by teaching that the devil was unaware of Jesus’ divinity when he accepted Jesus as ransom payment for humanity, so in this view, God successfully completed the infamous bait and switch tactic.

Proponents of the Ransom to Satan theory see the metanarrative of Scripture as the conflict between good and evil and ultimately Jesus defeating evil. Gregory Boyd writes,

“The Christus Victor view of the atonement cannot be appropriately understood without an appreciation for the broader spiritual warfare motif that runs throughout Scripture. Though the motif of spiritual warfare is rarely given its full due, the biblical narrative could, in fact, be accurately described as a story of God’s ongoing conflict with an ultimate victory over cosmic and human agents who oppose him and who threaten his creation.” [4]

Penal Substitution Theory

In the modern church penal substitution has become the prevalent view of the atonement. Thomas Schreiner defines it as,

Penal Substitution puts the focus on our own sin and need for our sin to be paid for. It also sees God the Father as the one who must be satisfied in the exchange, not Satan. In the penal substitution theory, it is God’s holiness and justice that hold us captive, not the powers of evil. The ransom or payment that Jesus makes on the cross is made to satisfy the wrath of God. The New Testament describes this transaction by using the word propitiation. [5] 

“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” [6]

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” [7]

The atoning death of Christ accomplishes our liberation from the power of sin and the penalty of sin that God’s justice requires. God’s fiery wrath is satisfied in the death of Jesus and we are freed to live now as slaves of God rather than slaves to sin.

Proponents of the Penal Substitution Theory believe that the depravity of man makes penal substitution necessary. We do not simply need to be rescued from the clutches of the devil we need to be rescued from the indwelling sin which totally corrupts us. The Bible presents as “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), with all of us being sinners, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It is this sin nature that must be atoned for.

Also, key in the Penal Substitution theory is the justice of God. God’s character is unchanging, He is perfectly loving but also perfectly just. The Bible describes God as holy, meaning that He is completely distinct and separate from anything else especially anything sinful or contrary to His good nature. Our sin places us in the seat of judgment from our perfect, holy, God. God’s coming judgment on sin is certain,

“This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,” [8]

Whereas the Christus Victor theory sees’s defeating Satan as the primary purpose of atonement, the Penal Substitution theory see’s defeating sin through the substitutional sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the primary purpose of the atonement. Romans 3:21-26 is a key passage for the support of penal substitution. In this passage, we learn that not only are we all sinners but that we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood”, so we are justified and redeemed by our propitiator Jesus Christ. God has provided propitiation for us “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Penal Substitution also views the atoning death as the only way to pay for our sins and provide salvation for mankind. Wayne Grudem writes,

“But once God, in his love, decided to save some human beings, then several passages in Scripture indicate that there was no other way for God to do this than through the death of his Son. Therefore, the atonement was not absolutely necessary, but, as a consequence of God’s decision to save some human beings, the atonement was absolutely necessary…In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays ‘If it be possible, let this cup pass from me;” [9]

So if God is to still be righteous and just and save His people then the only option is to send Christ to pay for the penalty of sins. On the cross Christ bore the sins of His people, thus providing salvation for them.

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” [10]

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” [11]

The Christus Victor theory see’s the atonement as the means to defeat Satan and evil, whereas the Penal Substitution sees the primary purpose of the atonement is to atone for the sin of the people of God. This is the fundamental difference between these two views. Penal Substitution see’s Christ as substitute more than as the Victor, He is the one taking our place, bearing our judgment and facing the wrath of God that we deserve. Penal Substitution teaches that God, not Satan, is the one who must be satisfied with the ransom payment. The sacrificial death of the Son of God is the only sacrifice that can wash away the sins of God’s people.

Why Penal Substitution is the most biblical view of the Atonement

While there are different aspects and effects of the atonement the main purpose of the atonement is to atone for our sins. In the atonement Christ dies in our place, taking our sin and our punishment upon Himself. We see this taught throughout the Scriptures,

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—  the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”[12]

In this passage, we first see the establishment of the universality of sin. All have sinned, all of mankind is sinful and therefore is separated from God. This is man’s fundamental problem and therefore it is the primary purpose of the atonement. The atonement is that act by which Satan’s head is crushed, death is defeated, the effects of the curse such as disease and sickness are defeated but the primary purpose of the atonement is to offer payment for our sins so that mankind can be redeemed and reconciled back into perfect fellowship with his Creator. If all the atonement did was defeat Satan then yes, we may be loosed from his power but we are not loosed from the power of sin. Sin, not Satan is our greatest enemy and is what separates from God forever.

Another passage that establishes the Penal Substitution Theory of the atonement is Isaiah 53:5-6,

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

This passage shows us that the reason that Jesus was pierced and crushed was for our transgressions and our iniquities. The sufferings of the cross are connected to our sin. Thomas Schreiner underscores the importance of this text,

“Isaiah 53 is without doubt the most important messianic text in the Old Testament: here the suffering of the Messiah is clearly prophesied. The passage also teaches clearly and often that Christ Jesus died in place of sinners, taking their penalty on himself. We also see in verse 10 that it was God’s will to crush him. It was the will of God for Christ to die in the place of sinners. In his death Christ satisfied the wrath of God.” [13]

Isaiah 53 is clear that Christ died in the place of sinners. He is our substitute, taking God’s wrath for our sin upon Himself so that we can be saved.

The Bible is also clear that Jesus himself understood that the primary purpose of the cross was to satisfy the wrath of God against our sins. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays and asks that “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me;” [14] Matthew describes Jesus as in great anguish and agony over what is coming, why is this coming cup causing such distress? The cup refers not just to the cross but to the wrath of the Father that Jesus will have to endure on the cross to pay for our sins. Theologian John Stott describes the meaning of the cup,

“It symbolized neither the physical pain of being flogged and crucified, nor the mental distress of being despised and rejected even by his own people, but rather the spiritual agony of bearing the sins of the world, in other words, of enduring the divine judgment which those sins deserved. That this is the correct understanding is strongly confirmed by Old Testament usage, for in both the Wisdom literature and the prophets the Lord’s ‘cup’ was a regular symbol of his wrath. A wicked person was said to ‘drink of the wrath of the Almighty’ (Job 21:20).[15]

The cup is so agonizing because it represents not just physical suffering but the full divine judgment upon sin. While the physical sufferings of the cross were horrible they were not the worst part of the cross, bearing our sins was.

One of the modern objections to the Penal Substitution Theory is the belief that it is “child abuse” and causes God to be an unloving and evil Father. This argument is often put forth by pacifists and those who view the cross as unnecessary and too violent to be the plan of a loving God. Instead, they would put forth the idea that the cross was not God’s plan but rather was an unfortunate event that God was able to use for good.[16] The first problem with this view is that Scripture teaches that the cross was the plan of God.

“All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”[17]

“this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” [18]

The Bible clearly dismisses any idea that the cross was an accident, rather it is the preordained plan of God that was decreed before the foundation of the world. While the Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers may have been responsible for killing Jesus, God was still sovereign over the event and it went exactly according to His plan. This does not make God unloving because the entire motivation for the cross was love. The most well-known verse in the Bible teaches us that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son”, so the cross was an act of love not only by Jesus but also by the Father who willing gave His Son for us.

The objection that Penal Substitution is too violent is also flawed because Jesus willingly endured the cross.

“looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” [19]

“And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” [20]

The Bible clearly teaches us that the cross was not something done to Jesus but rather something that out of His love for us and obedience to the Father’s will he willingly endured. The cross was not a horrific accident that ruined the ministry of Jesus instead it was the very reason he came to earth, it was the purpose of his life and mission.

A second objection Penal Substitution is that the view is not clearly established in church history. Joel Green writes,

“I draw attention to the fact that the classic creeds of the church are silent regarding the mechanics of the atonement. Similarly, the “rule of faith,” as this was articulated variously in the ante Nicene period, leaves undeveloped, or at least underdeveloped, how best we might construe the soteriological ramifications of the cross of Christ.” [21]

While Green is certainly correct in stating that no early church council or creed established the Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement we shouldn’t allow that to be a reason to dismiss the theory. First, because we see throughout history that it is normal for the theology of the church to develop as time goes on. In fact, the majority of church councils were formed and issued detailed statements only as a response to heresy. Basic beliefs were assumed until it was necessary to correct an error. If we are to dismiss every belief that was not clearly established by a church council within the first three hundred years of the church then we are going to be left without many of our key doctrines.

Secondly, the validity of a doctrine is solely based upon its accuracy to the biblical text not its history. Theologians are fallible men and are capable of holding to and teaching a doctrinally wrong view for centuries, certainly, history has value but it should not trump a doctrine that is more accurate to the biblical text. Penal Substitution should be judged according to if it is the best representation of the Bible’s teaching considering the atonement not based upon how long the belief has been held.

Penal Substitution clearly stands as the theory that best and most fully represents the Bible’s teachings on the atonement. The primary purpose of the atonement was to offer a perfect sacrifice for our sins so that we might have the opportunity to be reconciled back to God.

 

 

 

[1] Schreiner, Thomas R.; Beilby, James; Eddy, Paul R.; Boyd, Gregory A.; Green, Joel B.; Reichenbach, Bruce. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (Spectrum  Multiview Book Series) (p. 12). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Mark D. Baker and Joel B. Green, Recovering the scandal of the cross: Atonement in New Testament and contemporary contexts (p. 147) (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011).

[3] Mark D. Baker and Joel B. Green, Recovering the scandal of the cross: Atonement in New Testament and contemporary contexts (p. 147) (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011).

[4] Schreiner, Thomas R.; Beilby, James; Eddy, Paul R.; Boyd, Gregory A.; Green, Joel B.; Reichenbach, Bruce. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (Spectrum  Multiview Book Series) (p. 25). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] Schreiner, Thomas R.; Beilby, James; Eddy, Paul R.; Boyd, Gregory A.; Green, Joel B.; Reichenbach, Bruce. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (Spectrum  Multiview Book Series) (p. 67). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[6] 1 John 2:2

[7] 1 John 4:10

[8] 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9

[9] Wayne A. Grudem and K. Erik. Thoennes, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 69.

[10] Isaiah 53:6

[11] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[12] Romans 3:21-26

[13] Schreiner, Thomas R.; Beilby, James; Eddy, Paul R.; Boyd, Gregory A.; Green, Joel B.; Reichenbach, Bruce. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (Spectrum  Multiview Book Series) (p. 86). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[14] Matthew 26:39

[15] Stott, John. The cross of Christ. England: INTER-VARSITY Press, 2006.

[16] Weaver, J. Denny. The nonviolent God. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013.

[17] Revelation 13:8 (NKJV)

[18] Acts 2:23

[19] Hebrews 12:2

[20] Mark 8:31

[21] Schreiner, Thomas R.; Beilby, James; Eddy, Paul R.; Boyd, Gregory A.; Green, Joel B.; Reichenbach, Bruce. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (Spectrum  Multiview Book Series) (pp. 110-111). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

 

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