Theories about the Atonement

Are some theories about it better than others?

Let’s define the term, first.

Atonement in English means at-one-ment or being one with God or being reconciled to him.

It is the extensive and costly process of reconciling sinners to God.

Let’s use the question and answer format for clarity and conciseness. As usual, I write to learn.

For me, the best conclusion is offered by Renewal theologian J. Rodman William at the end.

1.. If the Greek and Hebrew words for redemption speak of payment, who was paid? Satan?

Some theologians say yes, but other says no. Let’s look at this issue. God was not obligated to meet’s Satan’s demands, for Satan, who is an evil spirit, has no say in the atonement and God’s plan of salvation. No exchange. Satan does not now own Christ’s blood. However, some argue that some sort of a ransom was paid and Christ death frees us from the power of the devil (1 John 2:2 and 4:10), but they are not clear about the transaction.

He bought us with a price (2 Cor. 6:20). So where did the payment of his blood go?

We can find the answer first in the OT. Buying with a price is related to redemption or redeeming.

God commanded the Israelites to “redeem” their firstborn son or firstborn animals. This meant heads of households had to pay a fee to “redeem” them (Exod. 13:13-15; Num. 18:18-15). This payment made to the temple was a sacrifice.

Numbers 18:14-16:

14 “Everything in Israel that is devoted to the Lord is yours. 15 The first offspring of every womb, both human and animal, that is offered to the Lord is yours. But you must redeem every firstborn son and every firstborn male of unclean animals. 16 When they are a month old, you must redeem them at the redemption price set at five shekels [2 ounces or 58 grams] of silver, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. (Num. 18:14-16, NIV)

So the redemption price was five shekels of silver. The head of household paid this money to redeem or buy with a price his firstborn son or daughter, and then the head got to keep him or her. The money went to a holy place–the earthly sanctuary.

Now let’s see the parallel in the NT. No doubt the author of Hebrews had Numbers 18:14-16 in mind when he wrote Hebrews 9:11-15. It is a long passage, but it says that by Christ Jesus’ entered the heavenly tabernacle by means of his own blood, which obtained eternal redemption and cleanses our consciences. The new covenant is much better than the old!

11 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. (Heb. 9:11-15, NIV, emphasis added)

His death ransomed us from our own sins when he paid for them with his blood. This payment went into the heavenly tabernacle. I believe it also went into God’s justice system behind and above the degraded injustice system of sin, to which we were bound. He is our redeemer who lifts us out of this injustice system, so now we can serve the living God with a free conscience (v. 14).

The application to our lives is also clear. Jesus, the firstborn Son, was sacrificed as the price to redeem us. He is our Redeemer. It could be said that he sprinkled his blood in the heavenly sanctuary, and his blood is priceless, infinitely more than just five shekels of silver!

2.. Doesn’t the idea of paying debt seem old fashioned and disappear with Christ?

Some theologians argue for this, saying that out of his love God redeems us through Christ. God reached out and redeemed us from our sins. The release is from judgment (Rom. 3:25-25), sin (Eph. 1:7), and death (Rom. 8:2).

However, the concept of the price and payment are embedded in Scripture. We were “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). And as noted throughout this study, the transaction never disappears throughout Scripture.

3.. What does Christus Victor theory of the atonement mean?

Christus Victor literally means Christ the Victor (the –us suffix is the masculine singular, like the Greek –os). It means that on the cross (and subsequent resurrection) Christ is victorious over the world, sin, and the devil and his victory is our victory.

Here are important verses demonstrating Christ’s victory through his death:

13  […] He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Col. 2:13c-15, NIV)

Luther highlighted this approach. Christ comes as the conqueror and triumphs over those vices and evil. He delivered the world from oppressive forces of sin, death and the devil. His death took on human sin, and his resurrection destroyed claims on humanity. This removes the payment puzzle—whom did Christ pay. There is a lot to be said in favor of this theory of the atonement.

4.. What does the satisfaction theory mean?

Christ’s redemption through his blood satisfied God’s justice. Humankind is separated from God by sin; humanity is in debt that he cannot pay to an infinitely righteous God. Yet God demands payment. Only the God-Man could satisfy God’s just demand. Christ’s death paid the demands of the law and preserves God’s righteousness. That is, he could free man from his sins and maintain his justice—all through Christ taking our place on the cross and paying the penalty for our sins.

Therefore, in the ultimate sense, Christ paid the justice of God, which demanded payment for the debt of sin. Christ did this by becoming a sin offering and released us from our sins (2 Cor. 5:21). But let’s never forget that it was God himself on the cross, in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. This sacrifice was self-giving love.

5.. What does the moral theory mean?

Christ’s cross does speak of Christian discipleship and following him in his love (Mark 8:34; John 15:12; Eph. 5:1-2; Phil. 2:1-18; 1 Pet. 2:21; 1 John 3:16). Christ’s love kindles in our heart and opens a new path of discipleship and moral growth. It means God reaches out to us in love and changes us.

However, this “moral theory” is deficient because no redemption and release from our sins is done through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross—or at least it is not as clear as the Scriptures proclaim.  It is close to the theory of the gift of atonement (see below). But let’s not throw out those theory, because of all the Scripture references, noted in this point.

6.. What does the substitution theory of the atonement mean?

It means that God’s law and holiness required payment for human degradation and sin, if the atonement is to be done. God cannot ignore or overlook sin. So how can humankind be reconciled or brought near to God, with such a wide gulf?  Christ willingly became a sin offering in our place (substitute) on the cross and paid the penalty of sin that engulfed humankind. Now reconciliation between God and humans can take place because Christ is the mediator between the two. God can be just and the justifier of humanity (Rom. 3:26).

As noted, God himself was on the cross, in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. This sacrifice was self-giving love.

Further, God’s wrath is always judicial, never out of control emotions.

The Wrath of God in the New Testament

Do I Really Know God? He Shows Wrath

How God made the moral universe demands that people who break the law must suffer the consequences. Either they themselves pay for it, or a substitute like an animal on the Day of Atonement, is the substitute. In the Christian answer, Jesus became the substitute and he took our sins on him.

This is still a very strong theory and well supported by Scripture. Go here for the references:

What Is Penal Substitution?

7.. What does the theory that the atonement is a gift mean?

Out of his love God gave his all through his Son and his Spirit. Humanity that was plunged into sin and darkness and the devil’s dominion is overcome by Jesus atoning life and work. God maintains his justice, expresses his love and triumphs over darkness and Satan.

This theory and the one about penal substitution work together well.

8.. What is a conclusion?

A conclusion” is the right word, not the conclusion.

Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams combines the penal substitution and satisfaction theory with the moral theory (and perhaps the gift of love).

He writes:

In all of this there is obviously a tension in theory between God’s righteousness and His love. Satisfaction thinking will not allow any minimizing of God’s righteousness and justice; moral influence thinking invariably counters with the stress on God’s love and compassion. Both are right: The problem arises when one is emphasized above the other; righteousness and grace; justice and mercy (vol. 1, p. 379).

He continues:

Since this act of atonement is initiated by God’s love (“God so loved the world …”), then the primary matter is the Atonement is not the satisfaction of God’s justice, but the action of His mercy wherein He receives the full weight of His justice and judgment upon himself. In this event, love and righteousness have both been totally in operation. This is the way of the divine forgiveness, this is the Atonement, this is the reconciliation of the world to God (Vol. 1, p. 379).

Is Christ’s Death on the Cross Divine Child Abuse?

No. Here’s why:

Christ’s Death on Cross = Cosmic Child Abuse?

How does this post help me grow in Christ?

God reached out and atoned for and rescued us from our sins. The release is from judgment (Rom. 3:25-25), sin (Eph. 1:7), and death (Rom. 8:2).

God reached out to you in his love to redeem you from your old life of sin and degradation. Even the so-called “good girl” or “good boy” has need of redemption. God needs to buy you out of your own salvation that you are working by your own good behavior. But that is deficient. You can never be good enough. You need to acknowledge that the presence of sin permeates your mind and body, and this wars against your quest for perfection. But there is no perfection in your condition. Perfectionism is futile and leads only to frustration. You need a Savior to deliver or rescue or redeem you. You need to be brought over from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the Son whom God loves. And when you walk in him, God loves you too. And accepts you in all your imperfections. Then all your striving and frustration will cease. You will be redeemed from yourself.


Atonement: Bible Basics

What Does ‘Atonement’ Mean?

Theories about the Atonement

The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 from a NT Perspective


Works Cited

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