Atonement Theories

the-atonement copy

One of the great questions in Christianity is what exactly did the cross of Christ provide?  What was its’ purpose?  How does that relate to the believer today?   In the death and resurrection of Christ, we as believers find our salvation from destruction.  Its’ complete meaning is therefore extremely important.  Below I’ve listed several different atonement theories.

Atonement Theories:

The Penal Substitution Theory

The Penal Substitution Theory states that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners.  God required punishment for sin so imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ.  Christ took the punishment for sin in our place, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God so that he could forgive sinners without compromising His own standard.

Below is a list of Scripture supporting the Penal Substitution Theory:

Is. 53:6; Is. 53:12; Rom 3:25; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal 3:13

The one major flaw in the Penal Substitution Theory is that it supports and promotes universalism, the idea that all of creation will eventually be reconciled to God and His kingdom.  This includes even Satan and his demons.  Universalism was a widespread school of thought in early Christianity.  Concerning Ephesus, some accepted the idea of conditional immorality.



Ransom to Satan

This theory states that a ransom had to be paid for man’s freedom to be gained from Satan. That ransom paid would have been Christ.  In a sense, man was enslaved to Satan in his thinking and in his flesh.  A ransom was demanded for freedom from this enslavement.

This theory really has little Scriptural support, and sees Satan, not God, as the one demanding a payment for sin.  It also gives the illusion that Satan has much more power than what is actually afforded him.

Moral Influence Theory

To summarize the moral influence theory, it is the idea that Jesus died on the cross as a demonstration of God’s love for mankind.  In observing or connecting with this act, man would be moved to serve Christ by this powerful display of love.

The major flaw in this theory is that it completely denies the spiritual state of death that mankind finds itself in.  It denies the necessity of sacrifice.

The Commercial Theory

The Commercial Theory suggests that Christ’s death on the cross brought ultimate honor to God, and as a result Christ was given a reward which he did not need.  He then passed that reward on to mankind in the form of forgiveness or atonement.

The problem with this theory is that it fails to account for the necessity of man’s repentance or “transformation of thinking”.

Example Theory

The Example Theory states that Christ’s life and death should serve as an example in faith and devotion to the Father.

Again, the problem is that this fails to recognize the sinful state of man and deal with the extreme consequence of sin.

Christus Victor

The Christus Victor theory claims that the forces of good and evil, or God and Satan are engaged in an epic battle, and that Christ’s death on the cross gained freedom for the souls of man.

With this view, we again, much like the “Ransom to Satan Theory”, give Satan more power and more credit than what is warranted.

There are more theories of atonement.  I was having coffee with a friend the other night who quoted from a book ten different atonement theories.  Above we have summarized a few of those, the all encompassing and more popular of atonement theories.

Most evangelical churches would embrace the penal substitution theory, which is indicative of the culture in which we live.  When one studies the history of atonement theories, one sees that each rose out of a culturally relevant situation.  We now live in a culture, and specifically in America the hub of evangelicalism, which is founded on the idea of liberty and justice for all.  It shouldn’t shock anyone that this is the most accepted theory of atonement in our culture.  A punishment was required for sin.  Jesus accepted that punishment for us.

The Assemblies of God, whose Theology and doctrine I am most familiar with, would, as it seems, embrace a mixture between the Moral Influence Theory and the Penal Substitution Theory.  Upon reading the sixteen fundamentals, and their position paper on atonement, it seems this to be the direction they point in.

I myself am not an expert in the study of atonement theories and would prefer to hear your feedback.  However, if I were to conclude by giving my personal belief when it came to atonement theories, I would say I would like to see a mixture of the Penal Substitution, the Moral Influence Theory, and the Example Theory.  Those three could in some way work together, and in doing so would provide a holistic approach to solving the battle between atonement theories.


4 responses to “Atonement Theories

  1. I, too have little confidence in my understanding of how the atonement “works” although I am quite committed to the orthodox position. Years ago, this actually provoked a crisis of faith for me. After many days/weeks. Psalm 139:6 came to mind. To the amusement of skeptics everywhere, the admission that “such knowledge is too high for me, I cannot attain it” brought me much piece, and continuing comfort.

    That said, you observe the major flaw in the penal substitution theory as that it supports universalism. I don’t think it does that. Over at my place I have several posts dealing with the subject of damnation v. universalism, but the two minute summary is this:

    I take heaven to mean unity with the realm of light. God is truth, in whom there is no darkness at all. Likewise in the fullness of the Kingdom, there is neither lie nor error. This includes knowledge of who I am, who God is, and what He has done to bring me to this realm. If I, faced with this knowledge insist on my own rejection of His description of me, and insist that The Christ is not necessary for me, how can my darkness live in light, without diminishing it? That willful separation, preferring my own darkness and unreality even in the presence of all truth and light, is by definition damning.
    Now suppose (and this is strictly my private ideas, and subject to correction) suppose that Jesus by His death and resurrection, paid the price, satisfied the penalty for all sins, everywhere and everywhen by everyone. This would be the characteristic of penal substitution that some may see as universalist. But still, if at that Gate, I refuse what God has done, and separate myself from “Truth” by my own volition.
    I think a lot of the difficulty we have is by missing the nature of Heaven as a place of unyielding truth, love and mercy, but no room for any darkness at all.

    R. Eric Sawyer

  2. I do like that. While I was writing I was trying to enfuse the implications of a covenant relationship. For the atonement to have effect on the believer, the believer must participate in the covenant.

  3. There are many traditional explanation of why and how we receive the provision of atonement. However I tend to see that the purpose and how we accept the provision based on love and the position of a mans heart.

    The atonement is a demonstration of the Love of God. Sin is rooted in Pride and selfishness, but Christ restored and illustrated to humanity what it means to “really” be human, and that is to be humble and selfless.

    So how one receives the provision of atonement, it is based on the position of their heart. If they humble themselves and submit to God’s will, they enter under the covering of the cross. If they stand prideful in the face of the cross they reject its provision.

    Because its primary purpose is to purpose it to reflect the Love of God, and if we don’t reflect the love of God we have rejected the cross.

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