The Atonement of Christ
No single doctrine of the Christian faith is more central to it than the atonement made by Jesus Christ at Calvary. Without Christ’s work on the cross, nothing else in Scripture matters much; if at all. While all forms of Christianity affirm that in some sense Jesus Christ died for sins, we must press the issue further. Namely, in what sense exactly did He die for sins? Was the atonement actual or potential? General or specific? What did He actually do?
There have been numerous theories of Christ’s atonement put forth in 2000 years of church history, some of which are more valid than others. Some of the theories are quite foolish and have little truth to them. And although there certainly are a few of these theories that are quite valid, since the death of Christ did more than just one thing, none of them mean much apart from the doctrine of penal substitution. This doctrine is truly the heart of the atonement. Here are some very brief summaries of seven major atonement theories that have been put forth throughout Christian history.
1. Recapitulation - This theory, associated especially with Eastern theologies and Iranaeus, puts a strong emphasis on Christ’s life as well as His death undoing the collective transgression of humanity. It also emphasizes the replacement of Adam’s headship in sin over the human with Christ’s headship.
2.Ransom - This view was very popular among some early theologians, such as Origen. It emphasized that Christ’s death was a ransom paid by God to Satan for ownership of humanity.
3. Christus Victor - This atonement theory emphasizes Christ’s victory over death and hell at the cross. Generally associated with Eastern theology, but also plays a large role in Reformation theologies.
4. Satisfaction - This view focuses on the atonement being a solution to God’s offended dignity or justice. Associated with Anselm, penal substitution is a type of satisfaction.
5. Substitution - This view emphasizes direct vicarious substitution for sinners to pay the just demands their sin requires. This view is specific to Reformation theologies.
6. Moral Influence - This view has its emphasis on the cross of Christ as a demonstration of God’s love that provides a moving example of His love that will lead sinners to repentance. Associated with Peter Abelard, this view is popular with liberal theologies. Some Arminians also are favorable to this view.
7. Moral Government - This view emphasized God’s just government of the world and establishes repentance as the basis on which humans can approach God. This was formulated in Arminian theology as an alternative to substitution. Hugo Grotius was the main pioneer in this regard.
So, as one should be able to see, there is some truth in many of these theories. Yet Christ’s death cannot be completely summed up in only one of these theories. For instance, in Colossians 2:12-15, we can easily deduce three theories from the text. The passage moves from recapitulation to penal substitution to Christus Victor. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him (recapitulation), having forgiven us all our trespasses by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross (penal substitution). He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in Him (Christus Victor).
As we can also deduce from this text, recapitulation runs very close with penal substitution, and Christus Victor is grounded in substitution. Indeed, what good is either theory apart from substitution? For without substitution, we are left wandering aimlessly dependent upon ourselves, at least partially, for salvation.
The doctrine of substitution has come under attack for years, as its opponents recognize that substitution in any form logically leads to a particular atonement and a God who is in utter control. These theological ideas don’t sit well with the fallen nature of mankind. After all, what is the effect of the fall of man but to be cursed with the search for autonomy? The Socinians (forerunners of open theism) attacked the doctrine of substitution on the grounds that moral debts cannot be paid by one party on behalf of another. Other more recent revivalists such as Charles Grandison Finney made the same objections. Arminianism has objected to the doctrine as well, pointing out that instead of Christ’s substitution for sinners, the cross simply made sinners savable based on a relaxed divine law that now, due to the cross, does not require perfect obedience to the perfect divine justice of God (Moral Government Theory). Other theologies of a more liberal bent have attacked substitution atonement on the grounds that it legitimizes and glorifies domestic violence, as the vengeful and angry Father pours out His wrath on the meek and passive Son. It’s no wonder then that people like Steve Chalke and Brian McLaren have referred to the doctrine as “divine child abuse.”
However, all of these objections fall short of the biblical data and share the same false assumptions. Michael Horton points out that these objections come in three varieties. “(1) a denial of God’s wrath and the necessity of his justice being fully satisfied by Christ’s death, (2) a rejection of the principle of substitution in this relationship between God and sinners, and (3) an emphasis on the exemplary character of Christ’s death as inciting human love and obedience rather than on its expiatory character as providing the sole basis for our acceptance before God.”
The problem with these objections is first and foremost that they don’t take sin as seriously as Scripture does, for according to Scripture the thing that makes sin sinful is precisely that it is first and foremost an offense against an all holy God. Psalm 51 sheds light on this, particularly in verses 3 through 5. In essence, much of contemporary theology has done away with the concept of justice, replacing it with a softened vocabulary that fails to account for the data we find in the Word. Instead of addressing the main problem; the plight of sinners before the judgment of a holy God, this softened vocabulary has lead to a moralistic religion that is more worried about our self-esteem and personal well-being. However, according to Scripture, the problem is not that we do not feel good enough about ourselves or aren’t living our best life now, but that we are “in Adam” and stand condemned in front of an infinitely holy God who accepts nothing less than perfection. God, remember, does not command us to do our best, but rather His best, for He cannot command anything less than that, lest He violate His own holiness and justice. Therefore, Christianity is not about doing our best to improve our lives. Christ is not our life-coach who brings good advice. On the contrary, the human race is helplessly dead in sin (Eph 2:1-3) and unable to follow, please, or submit to God due to this condition. (Rom 8:7-8) So the problem then has very little to do with us not fulfilling our potential as people but rather has to do with our helpless condition in sin.
If we allow this softened vocabulary to take over, the Christian faith ends up being siphoned through the lens of self fulfillment. That is, everything ends up being judged by whether or not it will help us feel better about ourselves and contribute to society. The atonement also gets thrown into the wake of this softening of the Christian faith. How many people now days view the cross through the lens of Christ’s loving example of self-sacrifice for us to emulate? It can even be looked at through the lens of how much God loves us (which is true) in this vocabulary or that God has reestablished His authority over death and sin. But, when the vocabulary is softened to this extent, it certainly cannot be the means by which God justifies sinners. It cannot be that we have been justified by his blood and saved from the wrath of God (Rom 5:9).
Numerous points come to mind as we defend the doctrine of penal substitution. First, the atonement of Christ is grounded in God’s own pleasure and volition as well as His love. Isaiah 53:10 shows us the first idea while the rightly loved verse of John 3:16 shows us the second. However, love is not the only attribute that God takes pleasure in. He does have many more attributes that are of course (as He is God) every bit as perfect as His love. To set His love over against all of His other attributes is a hallmark of theological liberalism and a misunderstanding of the Triune God at its root. We can say, for instance, that God is love. But, we could say God is love whether or not God chose to save anyone; or even to provide a sinless substitute for that matter. He would still be love. The atonement, therefore, although grounded in His love, is every bit just as grounded in His justice. Hence, if God decides to save the guilty (and He has decided such), he is making a loving decision that aligns perfectly with His character. On the other hand, since God has decided to save the guilty, He must do it in a manner that aligns with His justice as well (and with all His other attributes for that matter). Thus, when Islam argues that God can just forgive without having to send a sinless sacrifice, they’re stone cold wrong. For God forgiving sinners apart from perfection can only be done via a perfect substitute on their behalf (or the perfection of the sinner, which is impossible of course). Therefore, in order to save sinners, God Himself must do it, but man must have a perfect human representative. Namely, Jesus Christ. The solution to the problem then, is Christ substituting Himself on behalf of sinners who are utterly incapable of preparation in any way, shape, or form, of making themselves good enough to live with an all holy God, who accepts nothing less than perfection, since His justice demands it. Therefore, we can conclude that although the atonement is located and grounded in God’s love (Jn 3:16) and justice (Ro 3:21-26), ultimately it is an act of mercy, which by definition He is not obligated to give to anyone, since we are all universally under condemnation due to the fact that we are sinners (Ro 9:11-18, for instance). In the cross of Jesus Christ, God acts both graciously and righteously simultaneously (Ro 3:24-25).
Second, a proper view of sin is in order. Sin is not simply a moral weakness that we must reform by emulating the loving self-sacrifice of Christ by our incarnational living. Rather, it is incurred guilt because we have broken the covenant, which invokes sanctions (1 Jn 3:4, Ro 2:25-27). The basis for God’s judgment is His law, and His law must be kept perfectly in order to merit the eternal rest. Of course, this is precisely why we need a substitute, for we cannot keep the whole law. To presume that we can is an implicit denial of our sinful nature, which leads to a denial of original sin and the heresy of Pelagianism. As sinners, we are incapable of such, and only one transgression of it puts us in need of saving (Js 2:10), utterly helpless to lift a finger to bring ourselves to God or make ourselves holy. Thus, the cross of Christ is not just one of many ways that God could have handled the issue of saving sinners, it is the only way He can uphold both His love and justice in salvation. As mentioned above, mercy doesn’t need to be shown, as is evidenced by passages in which God chose not to extend mercy to certain persons. However, once God has decided to show mercy, He can do it only in a manner that upholds all of His attributes. Thus, the Muslim objection to Christ’s sacrifice fails because in Islam, Allah leaves His holiness and justice completely behind, saving only at His whim in an imperfect manner.
Third, the atonement of Christ is grounded not only in God’s freedom to show mercy to whom he will show mercy, but also in the united determination and agreement of the three persons of the Trinity. Everything God does is done by the Father, in the Son, and through the Spirit. There certainly are no inter-Trinitarian debates or disagreements. Christ does not attempt to accomplish something that Father Himself has not determined shall be done. When liberal theologies build a caricature of penal substitution by asserting that the vengeful Father acts out His rage on the passive and humble Son, it is a serious distortion and misrepresentation, not only of the doctrine, but of the very nature of God. The Father does not only receive satisfaction, but is also the One who gave the Son in the first place (Jn 3:16). Since God decided to have mercy, the Father, Son, and Spirit have all acted unilaterally to carry out the plan and purpose of redemption. The Trinity is not three independent actors, but three actors of the same essence acting in unison. Jesus came for a specific purpose and he laid down His life willingly and according to the Father’s plan.
Therefore, it is imperative to keep in mind that reconciliation with God is first and foremost objective. Since God can now forgive sinners legally on the basis of Christ, He can simultaneously reconcile them to Him. We see both His justice and love emphasized in the cross of Christ. His justice is on display when we see that God requires punishment for sin, while His love comes to the forefront when we see that it is God Himself who gave the Son in the place of our punishment. It is God who gives up the Son to the cross and it is the Son who gives Himself up in the Spirit.
Fourth, we must recognize that the active obedience of Christ is every bit as essential to the redeeming work of the Savior as His passive obedience. Therefore, Christ’s sacrifice is simultaneously a guilt offering (the atonement) as well as a thank offering (His life), as He lives a perfectly sinless life of fulfillment of the law as the representative for His people. The New Testament labors the point that God has done in Christ what nobody could ever do by the law. Therefore, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ begins at His birth, not at the cross. The cross, to be sure, is the culmination of that sacrifice and the grounds by which God can reconcile us to Him. But one of the things the cross itself has wrapped up in it is the imputation of Christ’s active representative obedience to our account. The atonement cancels the debt we owe and can never pay. But on the other hand, justification raises us up in God’s presence so that not only are we forgiven via Christ’s substitution work, but also wholly righteous and acceptable in the court of the Most High; pleasing to God for the sake of the Son, Jesus Christ.
Therefore, we object to the false choice forced by non-Reformational theologies between a substitution that bears away guilt and a life lived in grateful obedience. We recognize that Christ’s penal substitution is the entirety of the work of Christ, yet without it, nothing else means anything. Reformed theology therefore refuses, along with Scripture, to separate the two and hold one over against the other. Some critics have suggested that substitution grounded in the Triune God removes all incentive for obedience and leads to a license to sin. Yet, this is a choice that must be rejected outright, even more vehemently than we would reject the correlation in a marriage between a change of legal status and a relationship. The great exchange spoken of in the New Testament is not only forgiveness of sins, but also of Christ’s life of obedience for our life of covenant breaking. The whole Christ is given to each believer.
Likewise, the abusive speech employed by theological liberals of the Father taking out His rage on the passive Son must be rejected on the basis of the three points Horton mentioned above. The punishment that Christ carried was not a random act of rage or anger, but a fulfillment of the requirement that God demanded in the original creation, which God had decided in Trinitarian agreement would come to pass even before the foundation of the world.
Therefore, the Son, far from being a passive victim, freely gave Himself up out of love as well as justice. After all, it was Jesus who said: ““I lay down my life for the sheep…No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (Jn 10:15b, 18). At the cross of Jesus Christ, the Father was fulfilling the sentence required for sinners via His love and justice, accomplishing this via the One whom he loved the most, Jesus.
Motivated by love, the cross was not an irrational release of vehemence or anger on Jesus, but rather, the just sentence that God’s covenantal righteousness required, providing the basis for forgiveness as well as justification, sanctification, and glorification. We see in this not only penal substitution but also Christus Victor. Christ triumphed over sin and death at the cross.
The cross of Christ and the various ways in which Scripture describes it does not indicate disagreements between the apostles and Christ on what was accomplished. Rather, what it does is show us the immense scale of the work of Christ. It does far more than just one thing. Therefore, we must avoid two errors. First, we cannot reduce the cross to penal substitution alone. On the other hand, we cannot accept other theories as alternatives, since without penal substitution itself, these other theories have no basis and grounding.
Is there a moral lesson to be learned in Christ’s cross? Sure, but even these moral lessons don’t find any grounding apart from substitution. If we argue that Christ wants us to see the importance of laying down our life for our friends, we can see it. On the other hand, this means nothing apart from substituting oneself for one’s friends. There would be no value in that lesson without substitution. However, one of the biggest pieces of news in the Gospel itself is that sacrifices have been brought to an end. Therefore, any moral lesson that can be gleaned from Christ’s atonement can only be viewed through what he actually accomplished at the cross. Moral lessons certainly were not the focal point of his work. God’s attributes were on full display in the cross. Thus, even if we can glean a limited moral lesson from the cross, the comparisons are certainly not absolute. Who, for instance, is capable of atoning for their friends’ sins in the court of God? None other than Jesus Christ.
THE EXTENT OF THE ATONEMENT: FOR WHOM DID CHRIST DIE?
Now that we have covered the nature of the atonement; namely, that it is grounded in God’s love and justice in the form of substitution, we must press on to the next obvious question. That is, precisely for whom did Christ give Himself for?
If the preceding arguments are true and biblical; that the heart of Christ’s atonement is penal substitution, Arminian theologians such as John Miley are correct to recognize that: “The penal substitutionary theory leads of necessity either to universalism on the one hand, or unconditional election on the other.” Miley continues and remarks that, “such an atonement, by its very nature, and by immediate result forever frees them from all guilt as a liability to the penalty of sin.” Of course, Miley is correct. If the atonement is substitutionary then it does logically lead to either universalism or unconditional election. This of course has lead Arminian theologians to reject the doctrine of substitution, since they reject unconditional election and universalism. Of course, if penal substitution is true, then Christ objectively paid the just penalty of sin in full for every person that He died for. Therefore, either Christ died specifically for His elect persons or Christ actually redeems every single member of the human race. The other options which reject substitution lead us to atonement theories that make the basis of salvation dependent on human action. To be sure, even in Reformed theology, in the administration of the covenant of grace, there are conditions. Namely, faith and repentance. However, our faith and repentance are not the basis for the covenant of grace. Christ is the reconciliation with God, not our faith and repentance. Hence, we find replete references in Scripture to even our faith and repentance being gifts of God (Eph 2:8-9, 2 Tim 2:24-26, Acts 11:18, Acts 5:31, Acts 13:48, Phil 1:29). Therefore, when we need to differentiate between the basis and administration of Christ’s work. We must insist that the only condition that is a basis for salvation is the work of Christ, but that bound up in that work of Christ are the gifts of repentance and faith. Only those who are God’s elect will be brought to true repentance and faith.
Three main theories have been put forth in this regard. The first one is universal reconciliation, that Christ objectively redeemed every person. This theory was first formulated by the early church theologian Origen. Since the Scriptures teach with clarity that God loves the world and died for the world (Jn 1:29; 3:16; 6:33, 51; Ro 11:12, 15; 2Co 5:19; 1Jn 2:2), advocates of this view hold that it was Christ’s intention to save every single person who lives or ever has lived. Origen went as far as to say that all creatures, including Lucifer, would be finally saved and reconciled to God. Confessional Lutheran theology also holds to a universal and objective redemption while simultaneously holding to a limited and unconditional election. The only people that will be saved finally are the elect, but there are many others who are saved and later forfeit their salvation via unbelief. Thus, in the universalist view of Origen, all for whom Christ died will actually be saved, and since Christ died for everyone universally, everyone universally will be in heaven. Confessional Lutheranism on the other hand holds that not all for whom Christ died will be finally saved, even though Christ indeed intended to save everyone universally. These ideas agree that Christ’s death objectively redeemed every single person universally.
The next, and most popular option in Christendom today, is that Christ’s death did not objectively redeem anybody, but rather, made everyone savable. Arminianism holds that the atonement makes it possible for God to offer salvation to sinners based on their faith and obedience, which of course is accomplished via the believers free will cooperating with God’s grace (synergism). Amyraldism (4 point Calvinism) also holds to an atonement similar to this. Namely, that Christ bore the sins of every person without exception, but since God knew that no one would embrace Christ apart from the gift of faith, He elected some to receive the benefits of Christ’s work. Many Protestants hold to either the Arminian or Amyraldian viewpoint. Christ’s work then does not save anybody in actuality but rather makes all people savable.
A third view, and the one I wish to support, is that the death of Christ actually redeemed all of those He intended to redeem by actively substituting for them at the cross. Since we reject universalism on biblical grounds, we conclude that Christ’s death was intended to save believers, His sheep, or His elect, however you want to phrase it, and none else. This view also rightly recognizes that the work of Christ is of infinite worth and infinite value, sufficient to expiate the sins of 10,000 worlds. It’s power is unlimited and perfect. However, it’s intent is not unlimited. The sufficiency of His work is not limited, but rather, its intent. This view has been most commonly labeled as “limited atonement” but this is mainly to fit the famous acrostic TULIP. Better terms would be “particular redemption” or “definite atonement.” The reason for these terms is simple: all views that realize that some people will eventually be lost place a limit on the atonement. Thus, even in the Arminian and Amyraldian views, the atonement is limited. They limit its power or effect while universalizing its intent, while Reformed theology limits its intent but not its power and effect.
Particular redemption is grounded in the following arguments. First, the view emphasizes the perfect and unified relationship of the three persons of the Trinity. The Father elects, the Son redeems, the Spirit brings them to Christ to receive all the benefits of His perfect mediation. Scripture refers to this eternal pact numerous times (Eph 1:4-13; 2Th 2:13-14; Tit 3:4-8), but Scripture also repeatedly tells us of God’s intention to redeem His elect (Ro 8:32-35), His sheep (Jn 10:11, 15), His church (Ac 20:28, Eph 5:25-27), and His people (Mat 1:21). I also might add, nowhere does Scripture tell us that it is God’s intention to save everyone universally.
Likewise, Jesus Himself said that he came to do the Father’s will and save everyone whom the Father had given Him, and that he would lose none (Jn 6:37-44, 65). In John 10, Jesus says much of the same; that He lays his life down for the sheep, and that they know Him and come to Him, which includes not only Jews but the whole world (Jews and Gentiles). His high priestly prayer in John 17 is more of the same: “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (Jn 17:9). The epistles agree with this verdict. The Father, Son, and Spirit are unified in their will and work, and we can take great comfort in this (Eph 1:4-13, Ro 8:28-34).
Second, a heavy emphasis is put on Christ’s objective and effacious work. We also must reject the red herring put forth by opponents of particular redemption. That is, how do I know Christ died for me? Scripture gives us the answer: God’s predestination is hidden to us for it is only known to the Lord (Deu 29:29, for one), therefore, we must look to Christ, since our election is comprehended in Him. Horton comments, “The alternative views, however, though not affirming universal salvation, hold that in spite of Christ’s objective work, many for whom He died will be finally lost, bearing their own judgment. But what then of Christ’s promise above that He will not lose any of those whom the Father has given Him?” What then indeed! There are only two solutions to this dilemma. First, either Christ does lose some the Father has given Him or second, Christ attempted to redeem people whom the Father did not give Him. The first “solution” nullifies a promise of God and the second one sows discord and differing purposes between the Father and Son.
Since the atonement is actual, we can proclaim with confidence the promise given to us in John 3:16, that whoever believes in Him will be saved. If it is merely potential or hypothetical, the promise of John 3:16 is weakened immensely, grounding the promise in the subjective belief of the person. In which case, it could not be a promise of eternal life in the first place, since some people would be saved and not have eternal life (since it wouldn’t be eternal). We can therefore heartily proclaim that a) Christ died for sinners, b) Christ died for the world, and c) Christ’s death is sufficient for you. But, I cannot find for the life of me the promise in the New Testament ever given to an unbeliever that Christ died specifically for them. The apostles never preached “Jesus loves you and died for you” to pagan audiences. They preached “repent and believe on the Lord Christ and you shall be saved.” His work was done specifically for believers. If Christ’s work is not the true reconciliation with God, our subjective appropriation is. God forbid we base our salvation and assurance thereof on our own subjective feelings, thoughts, or minds. God’s promise is infinitely more sure.
Likewise, our evangelism has hope, for it is grounded in the unity and promise of the Triune God, for the Holy Spirit will use this good news to draw God’s people to Him. I finish with a spot-on quote from, once again, Michael Horton:
“The Sinai covenant focused Israel’s hopes on the Messiah through types and shadows, but the Abrahamic covenant promising salvation for the nations is now announced to the world. It is in this sense that we understand the verses that refer to Christ’s death on behalf of “all” and “the world.” Since Christ’s blood “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9), there is no distinction any longer between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free (Gal 3:28). Through the flood, God simultaneously judged and saved the world - even though only eight persons were rescued. How much greater then is the salvation that is assured by the Triune God through His promise that there will be a remnant from every nation entering into the heavenly sanctuary as His new humanity.”
Thank You Lord for saving your people perfectly. For without your perfect work, grounded in the three persons of the Trinity, there could be no salvation whatsoever. Amen.