Ask Steve: Atonement Theories


Currently Reading:

Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship

by Joshua Harris

Category: Dating/Relationships/Christian Living

Multnomah Books, 2005, 2nd edition





Question: Steve, Can you explain to me the various historical views on Christ’s atonement and which view you believe is most biblical? Are these various views mutually exclusive to each other? 

Answer: Church history demonstrates the many views regarding Christ’s atonement. Although some of the atonement views capture general truths regarding Christ and His atoning work, there is one particular view that is the most biblical, orthodox, and God glorifying, and that is the doctrine of penal substitution. Before I explain penal substitution, I will first give an overview of some of the popular alternative theories of Christ’s atonement and explain whether or not these views are mutually exclusive to each other and whether they are sound and biblical. It is important to understand these other views so that you know what other contending views are held within the evangelical world for your apologetics purposes. A correct view of the atonement is necessary because it is at the heart of the gospel, and one’s saving faith may very well be at stake in this important issue, son one cannot afford to get this information wrong.

The first view I want to discuss is the classic or ransom theory, which is one held by many church fathers. It states that the atonement of Christ was a ransom paid to Satan to purchase men’s freedom out of sin and its eternal consequences. The theory holds that all men were enslaved by Satan, and once Christ paid the appropriate price to Satan by His death, Satan released believers so that they can be with the Lord forever. At the cross, God handed Jesus over to Satan in exchange for the souls of humans held captive. Satan wrongly believed that he could hold Christ in death, but the resurrection of Christ foiled Satan’s scheme, therefore Satan was defeated.

The second view of the atonement is called the satisfaction theory. This holds that Christ’s death on the cross was offered to the Father as compensation for His lost honor. In other words, Jesus’ death satisfied God’s wounded honor, and not necessarily to appease God’s wrath or justice against sin and injustice.

A third view is called the moral influence theory. This states that Christ’s death is a supreme demonstration of God’s love which moves men to soften their hearts and come to repentance. Those who hold to this view see men as not spiritually dead, but spiritually sick and misguided, needing proper inspiration and prompting to seek after God and be spiritually healed. Once they see the magnitude of God’s love displayed on the cross, these people are moved and are shifted morally towards God. This view has nothing to do with Christ dying to satisfy the wrath and justice of God or offering Himself to satisfy God’s wounded honor.

A fourth view is called the government theory. These adherents see the atonement of Christ as demonstrating high regard for God’s Law and His righteous anger against sin. Men is spiritually depraved and have broken God’s Law as a whole, therefore justice must be served. This is why Christ died on the cross: to be a substitute for the penalty of sin. God can now forgive people because Christ satisfied the Law. Christ’s death was not a full satisfaction of all sins committed by men, but a demonstration of divine justice that was generally satisfied by Christ’s willingness to honor the Law.

A fifth view is called the example theory. This holds that Christ’s atonement provided an example of faith and how men are to live better lives. Those who hold to this theory do not believe in the total deadness of humanity, but that they are spiritual alive, though not perfect. They just need the right impetus to move their hearts in obedience to God. And Christ’s death was that perfect impetus. In many ways, it is like the moral influence theory. The difference between the two is that the moral influence theory teaches us how much God loves us, whereas the example theory teaches us how to live as human beings. This theory does not teach that Christ’s atonement was meant to satisfy the Law or God’s justice in any way.

The last view is the doctrine of penal substitution. This theory sees the atonement of Christ as a vicarious, substitution sacrifice (on behalf of the sinners who come to faith) that satisfied the demands of God’s justice for sin. Man broke God’s Law and consequently incurs an eternal debt (Rom 3:23). However, Christ steps in to pay off men’s debt and to satisfy the demands of justice so that men do not have to pay for their sins in hell. Because Christ paid the penalty and satisfied God’s law by His active and passive obedience, God can forgive sinners of their transgressions. God can justify sinners, impute the righteousness of Christ to their account (2 Cor 5:21), and reconcile them onto Himself, adopting them into His family and making them heirs of the kingdom. Those who hold to this view firmly believe that men are totally depraved, dead in their trespasses. They can never seek after God and earn God’s favor by their actions. Therefore, Christ needed to die to pay the penalty for their sins so that people, through repentant faith, can accept Christ’s substitutionary payment as payment for sin. By faith, men are declared innocent, debt-less, and have the righteousness of Christ as their wages before the Father.

Out of all the atonement theories in existence, penal substitution is the most biblical and necessary one. This view most accurately aligns with what the Bible teaches about sin, the nature of man, God’s holiness, and the results of Christ’s death on the cross. The truth of penal substitution can be clearly observed when we compare the work of Christ against the backdrop of the Old Testament sacrificial system in the book of Leviticus. The book of Hebrews develops the connection well by describing Christ as the fulfillment of the OT sacrificial system, in which the sacrifices (indicative of penal substitution) ultimately pointed to the substitution of Christ on the cross for guilty and depraved sinners. Even prophetic passages like Isaiah 53 describe a scenario that captures the idea of penal substitution in the death of the Suffering Servant. Many sections of the NT also present Christ’s atonement as a sacrifice to acquit guilty sinners and to satisfy the justice of God on lawbreakers (Ex. Luke 22:37, 1 Cor 15:3, 2 Cor 5:21, and Gal 3:13). Both the OT and NT describe Christ’s atonement as a sacrifice for sinners in the spirit of substitution to satisfy God’s wrath upon them.

The other atonement theories do speak some truths regarding Christ’s atonement, its effects, and implications. The atonement did release men out of the sin’s bondage. However, the ransom was not paid to Satan, but to the Father. The atonement was also, no doubt, a powerful demonstration of God’s love for lost sinners. However, this theory fails to capture the truth and necessity of the sacrificial nature of Christ’s atonement and how men can experience that love of God (by repenting of sin and being saved in Christ). The atonement was also a model of exemplary behavior in that it teaches us the debt of love exemplified in sacrificial death so we can practice it for others if necessary. However, this theory fails to take into account the truth of the penal substitutionary aspect of the cross and the satisfaction of God’s justice. Love is also not what saves us, but is the effect of us being saved (that we become a new creation in Christ empowered to love because of the Holy Spirit).

Although the other theories present ideas that capture some aspects of Christ’s atonement and the results of the Christian life, they are by means the true message of the atonement. These theories, at the core, are mutually exclusive to one another. If one does not understand Christ’s atonement as a penal substitution, then he is in danger of following in on a false gospel that does not save. This is why it is necessary to have a correct understanding of gospel, and a right view of the atonement is an indispensable part of it. 

Recommended Resource: Pierced for our Transgressions by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach